How Drug Addiction Affects The Brain


Drug addiction is a powerful force. It destroys careers, it ruins relationships, and all too often, it can be deadly. Yet despite all the dangerous consequences, most people who are addicted to drugs can’t stop using on their own. That’s because overcoming addiction is far less simple than just saying no.

Addiction is a chronic disease that changes the way your brain functions, making quitting cold turkey without help and support an almost impossible task. To understand how to overcome drug addiction safely and effectively, we must first understand its effects on the brain.

How Drug Addiction Develops in the Brain

The very first time you inject, ingest, smoke, or snort a drug, it significantly impacts your brain. However, full-blown addiction doesn’t develop overnight. It unfolds gradually, in a three-step process.

Step 1: Desire

Every time you eat delicious food, listen to nice music, or interact with your friends, the reward center of your brain gets a little hit of dopamine. Dopamine is often referred to as a “feel-good” chemical, because it fills your body with sensations of pleasure. It’s how our brain learns to repeat tasks that are beneficial to our wellbeing.

The problem is, drugs also trigger a dopamine release – but in far higher quantities than normal activities do. That feeling of euphoria you get from taking a hit of drugs is actually your brain’s reward center getting flooded with dopamine. When that high wears off, though, you begin to crave it again and again.

Step 2: Tolerance

If you continue to abuse drugs repeatedly, your brain will eventually begin to compensate for the intense levels of dopamine by eliminating some of its dopamine receptors – meaning the structure of your brain begins to change. Now you become less sensitive to dopamine, so you need to take higher doses of the same drug in order to induce those same feelings of euphoria. This is how drug tolerance develops.

Step 3: Habit

When compulsion takes over, long-term drug addiction begins. New connections form in the brain, making drug use a hard-wired behavior. At this point, drugs no longer bring pleasure – they’re simply taken out of habit. What was once a desire is now a learned behavior; what was once a want is now a need.

At the same time, changes in your brain chemicals and circuitry impede your decision-making skills, judgment, and memory. As a result, you may start taking different, riskier drugs in larger quantities, and your addiction continues to deepen.

The Lasting Effects of Drug Addiction on the Brain

Habits are incredibly difficult to break, especially when they’re accompanied by alterations to the brain. That’s why it’s so hard to overcome drug addiction. If you’ve been abusing drugs for a long time, and you abruptly stop taking them, you’ll likely experience severe drug withdrawal. Symptoms of drug withdrawal include depression, anxiety, mood swings, and insomnia – all signs that your brain is adjusting to a sudden chemical imbalance. The severity of withdrawal is what makes relapse so common, and why it’s important to seek professional help when you’re trying to break your addiction.

API Can Help You Overcome Drug Addiction

If you’re ready to get your life back from the grip of drug addiction, Alvarado Parkway Institute can help. As one of the most comprehensive drug rehab centers in the San Diego area, we can help you through every phase of your recovery, from initial detox to long-term aftercare. We offer both drug and alcohol rehab in a caring and compassionate environment, with oversight from a highly trained medical staff.

Call us at (619) 667-6125 and let us help you overcome your addiction to drugs.