Addiction, your brain, and your recovery

Addiction is often seen as not having the willpower to stop taking a substance or engaging in a particular behavior. Trying to give up a harmful substance or behavior is often met with what seems like failure, leading to relapse and any progress made being lost. Addiction is a chronic and multifaceted disease, and treatment is possible if pursued diligently and with the support of friends, family, and a therapist.

Treating addiction through EMDR, BWRT, and Neurofeedback

Addictions feed on our emotional instability and insecurities. This is particularly difficult if we have deep-seated shame or trauma.  EMDR and BWRT both utilize the brain adaptive processing to eliminate trauma responses, change negative emotional/thought patterns, decrease cravings, and redefine how a person sees themselves. Both of these modalities, when applied well, leave a person more confident in their own skin, more motivated, and less needful of self-medication.

Neurofeedback has been used for decades to increase a person’s calm and focus while decreasing cravings for substance and addiction behaviors like gaming and pornography. There are a number of tools used, but the most common and research-tested technique is called alpha-theta treatment, in which you train the brain to easily go into a calm deep state by encouraging the alpha and theta frequencies to increase. It is not completely clear why this process decreases cravings but it does so consistently. It also creates other effects that carry over into everyday life such as changing your overall baseline for stress and anxiety, and improving sleep. There are many research articles demonstrating the benefit of neurofeedback with substance abuse. Here are three of them:

Randomized controlled study on mixed substance abuse

Neurofeedback training in opiate-dependant patients

Alcoholics with depressive symptoms

What is addiction?

Addiction is the inability to cease consuming or doing something that is either psychologically or physically harmful – or both.

Addiction is not limited to illicit drugs like heroin or cocaine. It could also relate to more socially acceptable substances like alcohol and even sugar. One can also become addicted to a specific activity like working, eating, gambling, and even exercising.

It is not so much the substance or the activity that creates the addiction – instead, it is the physical or psychological inability to stop. To take this one step further: it is not so much about not having the ability or willpower to stop as it is about compulsively seeking out the substance or behavior because it makes us feel better . One does not necessarily become addicted to a specific substance or activity, but rather to how it makes you feel.

It is possible to transfer addiction from one thing to another. An example would be someone who used to self-soothe by eating could start exercising and eating healthier. Eventually, they could become addicted to a healthy diet and exercise to the point where their bodies stop benefiting from the behavior. If this persists, the behavior could become harmful, especially if the person continues to lose weight beyond healthy levels.

Any substance or activity could become an addiction when a person starts gaining pleasure from it. Having said that, not everything that gives us pleasure is an addiction. It could become an addiction if or when we begin to pursue it compulsively, even when it becomes harmful.

How does addiction affect the brain

Harvard Health has an interesting article about how addiction affects the brain. The article explains that between 40% and 60% of the possibility of someone developing an addiction is hereditary. That means it is in your genes. Besides that, a person’s behavior has a massive influence on the development of an addiction.

Let’s take a look at how your brain sees pleasure. There is a specific chemical in your brain that gets secreted when you experience pleasure. This chemical is a neurotransmitter that is called dopamine, and it is released in a particular area in your brain called the nucleus accumbens – also referred to as the pleasure center. Dopamine gets released whenever you experience something pleasurable, whether this is from a drug, a sexual encounter, or getting money, really anything that you enjoy.

When you abuse a drug, a large amount of dopamine (between 2 and 10 times more than what is natural) gets released in the pleasure center if your brain. Whether the use of a drug or the participation in an activity leads to an addiction or not, is linked to how quickly, how much, and how consistent the drug or activity stimulates the release of dopamine.

There is a circuit in your brain that links pleasure to activities required for human survival like eating and sex. Frequent exposure to addictive substances or behavior creates a similar pathway in your pleasure center and prefrontal cortex. The result is that now you start to equate liking or enjoying something with wanting it. This feeling of wanting rather than just liking then leads to us compulsively seeking it out.

Symptoms of addiction

We can divide the symptoms of addiction can into three categories: psychological symptoms, social symptoms, and physical symptoms. Psychological symptoms include the inability to stop using a specific substance or pursuing a particular behavior and continuing the use or activity even though it causes health problems. A person who has an addiction could be using the subject stands or engaging in the behavior to help them deal with their problems. They could also have an obsession with the substance or behavior, take more and more risks to obtain the substance or participates in the behavior, and require more significant amounts to experience the same level of pleasure.

Social symptoms could include a person electing not to participate in social interactions where the addicting substance or behavior cannot be consumed or engaged in. The person might stop participating in hobbies or activities that they used to enjoy, start using alone or in secret, and ensure that they always have enough of the substance that they are addicted to (or create the opportunity to engage in an addictive behavior). They might hide their substances, could have multiple legal issues and/or financial difficulties due to their addiction.

People who are addicted to something often deny that they have a problem, and in addition to this, they might consume amounts that could be unsafe.

Physical symptoms include a change in appetite, sleeplessness, a change in appearance, and physical damage or illness due to the use of the addicting substance. There could also be an increased tolerance to the substance and experiencing withdrawal symptoms when the person is unable to take the addicting substance.

Withdrawal symptoms

Search sudden cessation of certain substances is likely to lead to withdrawal symptoms. In some instances, these symptoms can be so severe that it could be fatal. Withdrawal symptoms could include anxiety, irritability, nausea and vomiting, tremors and shaking, fatigue, and loss of appetite.

Addiction treatment

Addiction is a chronic disease, and the road to recovery is often long and hard. One of the most important things to remember with addiction recovery is that it could take multiple attempts before progress is made.

During treatment, people with addictions will experience not only physical effects but also psychological effects. The underlying factors of the addiction are unique and different to each person; therefore, the treatment method will differ. Treatments could include talk therapy, medication-based therapies, and treatment of psychological factors. Recently research on using Neurofeedback treatment  for addictions has had positive outcomes.

Addiction recovery is possible with persistence, understanding, and the assistance of people who love and care for you. Knowing how addiction affects your body, and your brain could help with understanding the mechanisms behind compulsive actions and assist you in your recovery. Neurofeedback, as a supplemental treatment, can help you rework the neural pathways in your brain and help you along your healing journey.