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Changes in the Brain due to Addiction

Denial/ a Change in the Brain

At some point, you must have heard a person with an addiction say that they’re worried they won’t have “fun” anymore if they stop using drugs or alcohol. Even if their life has many negative consequences, their family support is waning or completely absent, they’ve lost everything… they still can’t imagine being sober and having a good life. As an outsider, you can clearly see that the “fun” (or at least, the usual and customary definition of the word) is long gone. What is it that makes people deny the facts?

“It’s a disease that tells you that you don’t have it, so you don’t admit it. You can’t admit it” (Birr, 2017).

Dogs and Bells, Drugs and Dopamine

Did you learn about operant conditioning in school? The experiment with the dogs and bells? To make extensive research much shorter: if you use drugs, your brain releases dopamine and you feel good. Therefore, drugs make you feel good, in spite of all of the negative consequences. Pair this with a brain that tells you that you can manage your use this time, that the negative consequences weren’t that bad, that if you just use once it’ll be ok (all lies!) and you’ve got the addicted brain.

Opioid use is constant release of dopamine—the “feel good” neurochemicals in the brain. Every time someone uses opioids, the release of dopamine rewards their behavior. It encourages repetition of the behavior. Highly pleasurable/intense experiences also do the same— which is why some people engage in harmful behaviors (outside of drugs and alcohol) in spite of negative consequences.

Insane Thinking and Self-Sabotage in Addiction

Basically, on a neurochemical/brain level, it’s really difficult for people to stop using drugs or engaging in harmful behaviors. When someone is in the thick of an addiction, they likely want to get help when they run out of drugs. After a few days in detox or a couple of weeks in treatment, their brains trick them into thinking it wasn’t that bad, I can manage things from here, I can just use/drink on the weekends, it won’t be that bad this time because I have more knowledge, etc.

The most insane part of addiction is that when the addicted person tells you that they won’t use again, that they see how terrible it was, that they’re sorry for hurting you, they usually mean it. But then their brain sabotages them and tells them some use will be OK and they believe it. It’s like having an itch and being told you can’t scratch it—you can try for a while to not scratch it, but eventually you know what is going to stop the itch—scratching it. Addicts know what will stop the craving/ depression/ loneliness/ etc—using drugs or alcohol—in spite of any evidence to the contrary.

Birr, S. (2017, January). How opioid abuse is rewriting the brains of addicts. The Daily Caller News Foundation. Retrieved from

Smithstein, S. (2010). Dopamine: Why it’s so hard to ‘just say no.’ Psychology Today. Retrieved from