What Happens To The Brain When You’re Addicted To A Substance

February 20, 2017

Addiction is a major problem in today’s society. Right across the world, there are many people who are addicted to a substance that is either life threatening or that they have problems breaking. While addiction isn’t talked about in many families, it is still one of the common reasons why family units break apart. An addiction can change the way you think, feel, and how you respond to normal stress and everyday life. It changes the person you are and can cause long term problems if it’s not properly addressed in the early stages.

Addiction can come in many forms with many substances creating an addictive residue within the body. Some of the most common substances that drive addiction are:

  • Alcohol
  • Cigarettes
  • Cocaine
  • Heroin
  • Pain Medication and Prescription Drugs
  • Cannabis
  • Methamphetamines
  • Sugar

These are just some of the addictive substances that many people struggle with each and every day. But what actually happens in your mind when you’re addicted to a substance? Let’s take a look.

What Happens When Addiction Takes Over In The Mind

In the brain, pleasure is registered in the same way, no matter the source of that pleasure. Pleasure in the brain has a distinctive signature which causes dopamine, a neurotransmitter, to be released in a nerve cell cluster called the nucleus accumbens. This cluster is located under the cerebral cortex. When dopamine is released in this area it lights up due to the pleasure the person is feeling. This is why it’s known as the pleasure centre of the brain.

When drugs or an addictive substance is introduced to the body, this causes a powerful dopamine surge to be pushed into the nucleus accumbens. The faster the release of dopamine, the intensity of it, and the reliability of that release generally determines whether the substance that causes this quick heightened pleasure will become addictive or not. This is why injecting a drug intravenously instead of swallowing will generate a stronger and faster dopamine signal that will lead to the misuse of a dangerous substance.

When addictive substances are taken over a period of time, the brain will become conditioned to this new level of dopamine release. When it doesn’t get this extra pleasure release, this is where someone may start to have the low after the high or withdrawal symptoms. This is why people who have an addiction will continue to abuse a substance because the brain is always looking for that quick pleasure response.

Addiction Recovery: The Long Road Home

When fighting to overcome your addiction, it isn’t an easy journey. Many people will fall short of their goals of overcoming their addiction many times before they succeed. The important part is to not give up while on the road to recovery. The length of time it takes for you to work the addiction out of your system and for you to fully overcome it will depend on the substance that you’ve been using and the length of time that you’ve been using it for. To help begin your journey back home from addiction you will need professional help. Some treatment options you can consider include:

  • Rehabilitation Centre – Many people who have a serious addiction will go to a rehabilitation centre which specialises in the treatment for the addiction that you’re suffering from. These are generally run by trained professionals who can help to provide you with the steps and treatment options needed to overcome your addiction.
  • Psychological Help – Some addictions while being treated may need psychological help. This is because some people use different substances to cope with trauma they’ve experienced in their life. With the help of a trained professional psychologist, they can help you to work through your underlying issues which may be causing you to abuse a substance in the first place. This will help you on your road to recovery.
  • Local Doctor – It’s a good idea to also consult your local doctor if you’re hoping to start your recovery journey. Your local doctor may also know of some people who can help and get you moving in the right direction.

While you’re seeking help for your recovery, don’t be afraid to ask for support and love from your friends and family. During this difficult time you will need all the support you can get.


Addiction is powerful, and is hard to overcome, however if you’re committed to having a new life and you want to really overcome your addiction, you have the power to make it happen. Don’t worry if you go backwards a couple of times, all that matters is that you continue to push forward even when the road gets tough. Addiction can’t be fixed in three steps, it takes time. So are you ready to beat your addiction and lead a happier life?

Joel Curtis

Joel Curtis is a registered Psychologists with Endeavour Wellness and has over 17 years of experience. Joel holds a Masters’ Degree in Psychology from Western Sydney University. Joel owns a number of private practices in Sydney and provides expert content for several national TV and Radio programmes.


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