By Dr. Asa Don Brown, Ph.D., C.C.C., D.N.C.C.M., F.A.A.E.T.S.

upset sober man holding his head


The struggle of an addict is like non other. For the addict and those intimately involved with the addict, the angst that comes from the addiction is deeper than the deepest sea and higher than the highest mountain.

What is your relationship with addiction? Have you had feelings of deep anxiety or dread when helping someone you know with an addiction? For many, addiction comes with a high price. Addiction not only takes a toll on the individual struggling to defeat his or her addiction, but the price is also paid by those that have an intimate relationship with the addict.

For those that do not suffer from, or either know someone suffering from an addiction; the interpersonal relationships may appear strange. You, yourself may be asking why someone might subject themselves to the problems related to addiction. We must remember that addicts are human too. In fact, if you were to be honest with yourself, there is one area in your life that you might categorize as an addictive habit. What is the difference between an addiction and a habit? A habit is something that we have created a regular routine around; we have a tendency to do, practice, or lean upon; and there is a deeply ingrained yearning to pursue. However, while a habit is not an addiction, it has the overall flavor and many of the characteristics of an addiction. An addiction may have begun through an innocent relationship with the addictive vice. An addict may have had a few drinks to pass the time; they may have taken a toke of marijuana from time-to-time to relieve stress or anxiety; or they may have taken a substance (e.g. LSD, Opioids, Heroin) with a greater potential leading to an addiction. Addiction is a chronic brain disease that takes control of your life. It has an ability of convincing you that despite the negative health and social consequences, it is worth the risk.

For the most part, an addict’s vice is directly related to how they feel while using it. Does the substance make them feel safer, calmer, bolder, more alert, less paranoid, etc.? Does the individual feel a sense of control or stability?

There is scientific evidence that suggests that addicts are predisposed to becoming addicted. Moreover, science has suggested that these issues lay dormant in the brain of an addict. While science has suggested a predisposition to addiction; there are other scientific factors that have been proven. Addicts are often acting from a behavioral perspective. They are commonly seeking a way to achieve control or to have the perception of control. The addict frequently partakes of the substance of his or her choice seeking to finding a place of inner peace and tranquility.

Through the addictive habit, the addict frequently feels a state of intense excitement, happiness, and peace. We know from scientific research that the brain’s pathways for reward are being activated. The reward system which involves the neurotransmitter dopamine influences behavior. “Dopamine is a compound present in the body as a neurotransmitter and precursor of other substances including epinephrine.” Dopamine is also directly related to an individual’s attention, memory, motivation, and even bodily functions and movements. While not true of all substances, dopamine is often released while using specific substances which floods the body with an intense euphoric state. Drugs affect the brain by interfering with the signals sent via the neurotransmitters. It is through the use of drugs like marijuana that the neurons are activated.

Marijuana acts by mimicking the chemical structure of the natural neurotransmitter in the body, allowing for the drugs to attach too, thus activating the neurons. “Although these drugs mimic the brain’s own chemicals, they don’t activate neurons in the same way as a natural neurotransmitter, and they lead to abnormal messages being sent through the network.

Other drugs, such as amphetamine or cocaine, can cause the neurons to release abnormally large amounts of natural neurotransmitters or prevent the normal recycling of these brain chemicals by interfering with transporters. This too amplifies or disrupts the normal communication between neurons.”

For many addicts, they are seeking a place of inner peace and tranquility which is often achieved through the substance of his or her choice. Please understand that there is real truth surrounding an addict’s need to self-medicate. Addicts are well aware of their personal needs. Furthermore, they are well aware of the specific substance that will help them to achieve that need. Addicts are their best clinicians and pharmacists for they have often gone through a period of trial-and-error to figure out the substance that best suits them. Interestingly enough, it is often not the substance that an individual is seeking out, rather the way with which they feel while using the substance. We could for all intents and purposes, blame the brain for our addiction issue. If it were not for the brain’s desire to make us feel pleasure, joy and happiness, we might not have a global epidemic problem with opioids and other substances.

If dopamine is the primary catalyst behind an individual’s motivations, then why not allow the individual to pursue his or her desires? Do we not want all individuals to feel peace, joy and happiness? Unfortunately, these states of euphoria are not longlasting and the amount of substances that it will take to achieve such a high will have to increase.

Proponents of various substances rarely discuss the latter. It is also important to recognize that “drugs can alter important brain areas that are necessary for life-sustaining functions and can drive the compulsive drug use that marks addiction. Brain areas affected by drug use include:

The basal ganglia, (reward circuit) which plays an important role in positive forms of motivation, including the pleasurable effects of healthy activities like eating, socializing, and sex, and are also involved in the formation of habits and routines.

The extended amygdala plays a role in stressful feelings like anxiety, irritability, and unease, which characterize withdrawal after the drug high fades and thus motivates the person to seek the drug again.

The prefrontal cortex powers the ability to think, plan, solve problems, make decisions, and exert self-control over impulses.”

The use of substances does not only affect the pleasure centers of the brain, but the use of various substances can have an effect upon the complete brain and physiological makeup of an individual.

The addict is often seeking ways with which to improve many of the affected areas of the brain. Normally, and unbeknownst to the user, they tend to use substances that they perceive have positively affected these areas. For instance, a user of cocaine may feel more embolden, sharper, more energized, and they may even feel as though they have achieved a specific stage of enlightenment or having obtained greater wisdom. Yet they forget to read the warning label; cocaine can cause an individual to become highly addicted, develop a host of physiological and mental health conditions.

The next time you or your friend begin to act as a virtual pharmacist, ask yourself if the substance that you are about to partake of is worth it. Do you want to risk the loss of your family, job, and possibly your life? You might be asking yourself, “why stay sober?” If the substance is giving me emotional strength, then why should I relinquish it? The truth is, the substance that you are using is a liar. The substance is most likely filling an emotional or psychological void. It may be providing you with an inner strength to overcome your fears, but the more you use it, the greater your dependency upon the substance becomes. After all, we are all seeking a place of solace, peace, and comfort. Naturally, we will do whatever it takes to achieve such a place of solace.

Reference Provided Upon Request

Dr. Asa Don Brown, Ph.D., C.C.C., D.N.C.C.M., F.A.A.E.T.S.