There is no doubt in the scientific community that addiction changes your brain. In recent years neuropsychologists have started to show how flexible and adaptable our brains are. So the bad news is this: drug abuse drastically changes the brain for the worse. Addiction hijacks pleasure centers, creates ingrained behavioral patterns, and kills brain cells. The good news is you can restore the brain after addiction.
Pleasure Centers in the Brain
In order to understand how we can fix the damage done, we first need to take a look at the type of damage we want to fix. The most popular theory of addiction is called the dopamine theory of addiction. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is released when we do something that feels good. The rush of dopamine is actually what we find so pleasurable. Dopamine is released when we eat, have sex, and exercise.
Drugs Mess With Dopamine
The reason drugs feel so good is because they flood our brains with dopamine. That dopamine rush you might usually get from a piece of chocolate cake is nothing compared to the flood released by one line of cocaine. Now here is where it gets particularly bad, the brain gets used to that dopamine rush. When you give your brain this mass amount of pleasure it will keep expecting it.
The things that should make you feel good no longer will because they don’t release as much dopamine as drugs do. This is why people with addiction often stop eating or doing any kind of self-care, because the brain isn’t rewarding them for those activities. In fact, how long it takes for this process to happen probably has a lot to do with how long it takes to get addicted to drugs or alcohol. When the switch happens where substances are more pleasurable than anything else people start to show the clinical symptoms of addiction.
How to Fix the Dopamine Problem
After someone stops taking drugs, the dopamine levels do not just restore to normal. The brain is used to these big rushes. This causes things like cravings which can lead to relapse. So how do we start to fix the problem? What needs to happen is finding pleasure in other activities. You cannot expect the brain to just stop feeling good at all, so instead give it something to enjoy. There are many ways to do this. One is through social engagement. We are social animals so social activities feel rewarding. At first this little dopamine boost might not feel like much. However, over time it will start to feel better and better as the dopamine levels stabilize. Eating meals with people, group exercise, and even just fun activities will all release dopamine.
If you are looking for a big rush or boost there are other ways than drugs to get it. Things like skydiving or other extreme sports will provide a big bump in dopamine. While these can be helpful in the short term, it is really about creating a life that provides a steady stream of feel good hormones to your brain.
Behavioral Addiction in the Brain
The second piece of the puzzle has to do with how behavior and habits change the brain. Addiction hurts the brain by creating ingrained pathways having to do with addiction. So let’s unpack that a little bit. Imagine that you have become addicted to pain pills. Your brain gets used to the behavior of opening the medicine cabinet and taking the pills multiple times a day. Maybe you have a particular ritual associated with taking the pills like how you wash them down or looking at them before you take them.
All of these things change your brain. The brain becomes accustomed not only to the drug but to all of the rituals associated with taking the drug. It gets so used to all of these behaviors that they seem to happen without you even thinking about them. In fact, it is really hard to stop these behaviors from happening. People might find themselves craving not only for drugs but for the rituals associated with the drugs.
A New Discovery: DeltaFosB
DeltaFosB is a protein found in the brains of people with behavioral and substance addictions. This protein seems to be produced by acting compulsively. So, measuring DeltaFosB is one of the ways that we can actually measure the how the brain changes from addiction behaviors. Think about that example above with taking pain pill. It might become a compulsion to take pills when you open the bathroom cabinet. Even after you come off the pain pills you will still have this compulsion when you go into the bathroom.
This protein can still be found in the brain up to three months after the person has stopped their addiction. In other words, the brain still has the behavioral addiction for up to three months. Think about it like drug detox. The drug leaves the system and physical cravings stop for most drugs within a couple of days. But for the addictive behaviors, the brain is still affected and withdrawing for up to three months.
This theory gives an explanation for why it is so hard to stop using even though drugs are out of the system. The brain is still wired to do the compulsive addictive behaviors!
Creating Better Behaviors
So how do we restore the brain when it still wired to act compulsively? There are a number of ways we can approach this problem. One way is to meet compulsivity with mindfulness. Mindfulness can help you become aware of the times you are acting compulsively or when you want to act compulsively. You might start by taking something that you know is triggering for you. For example, you might be extra mindful of how you body feels and what you are thinking as you open the bathroom cabinet and realize you are no longer taking pain pills. Having this awareness can start to interrupt compulsive behavior.
Another way to create better behaviors is with contrary action. This means when you feel like staying home alone you go to a recovery meeting instead. You essentially do the opposite of what you would normally do compulsively. Doing this enough will eventually rewire your brain so that these better behaviors become habits.
Our third and final brain problem created by addiction is neuronal death. This is just a fancy way of saying that drugs and alcohol kill brain cells. Most of us already know this from school programs or the “your brain on drugs” campaigns. But it is important to reiterate that addiction will cause brain cells to die.
This is a problem because our neurons (or brain cells) are what enable our brains to do all of those amazing things that they do. When brain cells die in certain areas things become harder to do. For instance, a lower density of neurons in the frontal lobe is associated to poorer decision making. Additionally, less neurons in the hippocampus means your memory will probably be worse. We need our brain cells for daily functioning as well as higher order reasoning and logic.
Restoring Brain Cells
Seeing as we need all the brain cells we can get, it is important to restore our neurons after addiction. For many years it was thought that the brain could not produce new neurons. However, in recent years this is been proven wrong. In fact, there are many things you can do to encourage neurogenesis (the growth of new neurons).
Research has shown that aerobic exercise encourages the growth of new neurons. So if you are worried that you have lost brain cells from addiction, you might want to take up running or swimming.
Additionally, things that block stress hormones will help you grow new neurons. The stress hormone cortisol has been known to kill brain cells. So, doing everything we can to reduce stress is incredibly protective. You might pick up meditation in order to reduce stress.
The final way you can increase your brain cells is by learning! Whenever you learn something new you are growing new neurons in the memory area of your brain and creating new pathways in the brain. It might be hard if the brain has been particularly damaged by addiction. However, if you stick with it learning something new can be a great way to restore the brain.
Matthew Sockolov is an empowered Buddhist meditation teacher, and offers one on one mindfulness coaching to individuals who wish to deepen their meditation practice.