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The Role of Dopamine in Addiction and Drug Rehab

Addiction takes crippling holds on people’s lives through dopamine – the same chemical responsible for humans’ experiences of pleasurable memories and expected rewards. Just like most people are driven by their dopamine-fueled desires for sex, food, company, and money, addicts are constantly compelled to seek the familiar euphoria of drugs. While neuroscientists have made great headway in understanding this phenomenon, the general public still lacks understanding. To prevent even higher rates of addiction, laypeople need to learn how their brains are hardwired to become rapidly hooked on narcotics, alcohol, and other substances.

How Dopamine Works

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a type of chemical which cause the brain to produce a variety of mental and physical sensations. Most pleasurable activities signal the brain to increase its levels of dopamine, and the elevated concentrations cause people to experience euphoria, reduced inhibitions, and general senses of well-being. This response is moderate in most cases, and it will cause people to form healthy, non-addictive desires to repeat certain actions.

Dopamine and Drugs

The reason that drugs are so addictive is that they cause the brain to release dopamine in incredibly large amounts. Heroin, meth, and other narcotics can cause concentrations to increase tenfold or more – a level no healthy activity can match. Drug users’ brains rapidly form associations between certain substances and this extreme level of pleasure. Even after addicts have stopped feeling the strong highs they once experienced, their bodies have developed physical dependencies on drugs.

Who Is Most At Risk?

Anyone can become an addict, but there are a variety of environmental and genetic factors which put certain people at greater risk. Several studies have indicated that people with naturally higher levels of dopamine may form addictions to drugs and certain behaviors more readily than others. These people often exhibit outgoing and even overbearing personalities, may be drawn to high-risk activities, and are likely to be leaders in important areas in their lives. Environments rife with peer pressure, abuse, or stress may also cause people to self-medicate in attempt to elevate their dopamine levels and experience temporary relief.

How Rehab Can Help

Just as traumatized people can never completely forget their bad memories, addicts cannot undo their brains’ associations between drugs and pleasure. However, the most proven rehab methods can help them reduce the effects of these associations. During a variety of counseling sessions, rehab specialists work with their patients to identify their triggers – the aspects of their lives which cause them to experience cravings. By avoiding negative people, compromising situations, and addictive behaviors, addicts can avoid the kinds of dopamine cravings only drugs can satisfy.

Necessary Lifestyle Changes

Addiction is a lifelong disease, and addicts must find ways to raise their dopamine levels without resorting to drugs. Stress management is extremely important. Chronic stress can lead to reduced concentrations of dopamine, making it even more difficult for addicts to suppress their cravings. Daily exercise and proper nutrition are also crucial for feeling physically well and staying in good spirits. Finally, people who complete rehab need to find some kind of driving passion or purpose in their lives. Psychological studies have indicated that people who find fulfillment in their daily endeavors tend to be happy – regardless of financial status.

If you, a friend, or a family member is struggling with an addiction, there is no time to waste. Call the number at the top of your screen, and get started on a drug rehab program as soon as possible. We can help you take the first steps on the road to recovery – if you only ask for help.

About The Contributor
The editorial staff of Recovery First is comprised of addiction content experts from American Addiction Centers. Our editors and medical reviewers have over a decade of cumulative experience in medical content editing and have reviewed thousands... Read More