How Does An Addicted Brain Work?

Learn the science of addiction, how it rewires your brain, and how you can recover from it.

Your brain’s reward system is full of feel-good chemicals. This is great, but an addicted brain receives more pleasure than normal. How does addiction start, you may ask? Drugs hijack your reward systems and get you on that high. You’ll want to repeat this experience over and over again. Before you know it, it's difficult to go without. 

If you’re ready to learn more about drugs, your brain, and how this affects your health, let’s dive in.

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How the Brain's Reward System Works

Your brain has a natural reward system that celebrates your good choices and experiences. The reward system is activated when you do well at work, eat good food, or spend time with your loved ones. This happens because your brain releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine. 

When you experience a surge in dopamine, it triggers feelings of pleasure and happiness. This encourages you to repeat actions associated with it. Over time, your brain will also anticipate this dopamine surge.

However, addictive substances can hijack this system. Drugs trigger intense dopamine surges well above what you usually receive. As you continue to chase this high, natural dopamine surges will feel less rewarding. This high becomes your new normal.

Neurological Changes Due to Addiction

The addicted brain doesn’t only involve behavioral issues. Addiction also impacts its structure and function. 

Structural Changes

Brain imaging studies have shown that the addicted brain may have size alterations in some regions. Some of the affected areas include the hippocampus and amygdala, both of which are crucial for your decision-making and impulse control. 

In an addicted brain, these are smaller and show decreased activity. This could imply that you may have difficulty with resisting cravings and prioritizing sustainable recovery.

Functional Changes

However, addiction also alters the connections between some of your brain regions. For example, addiction can partially disconnect your prefrontal cortex and your reward system. This is critical for your planning and judgment. As such, you may consume substances despite being aware of the consequences.

Over time, your brain could rewire to prioritize your drug intake over some bodily functions. 

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The Cycle of Addiction

Addiction is composed of a few key stages. Here they are:

Use, Reward, And Craving

The cycle begins with the first time you take the drug. This triggers your dopamine release, and you feel that heaven-sent euphoria. 

Now you’ve experienced what it’s like to be on that high, you'll want to experience it some more. As a result, you may find yourself repeatedly taking the drugs.

After some time, you begin looking for it. This is what you call a craving. 

Dependence And Withdrawal

When your brain begins to adapt to the drug, you may find yourself taking more than usual. This need for more to receive the same effects is called tolerance.

As tolerance builds, your dependence on these substances develops. Your brain and body can become reliant on these to function. At some point, you may have considered stopping. However, abrupt cessation can cause unpleasant physical and emotional withdrawal symptoms.


After some period of successful abstinence, there could be days when your cravings are triggered. This may happen after exposure to stress, peer pressure, and social environments. In the worst case, this could lead to relapse and returning to drug use.


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Behavioral and Psychological Impact

Addiction also impacts your behavior, mental health, and relationships. 

Behavior And Personality

Intense cravings for drugs could become your top priority. You may find yourself neglecting responsibilities at work, school, or home. Not only could this affect your performance, but it could also strain your relationships with the people involved. 

You may also be more easily irritated, frustrated, and angry. 

Mental Health

Stress, anxiety, and the emotional turmoil associated with drug addiction could exacerbate your current mental health problems.

For example, you may find yourself turning to addictive substances when you feel depressed. Your addiction could worsen your mental health, and your mental health issues could trigger more drug intake. It's a vicious cycle.

Challenges in Overcoming Addiction

The way drugs hijack your reward system makes it incredibly difficult to overcome addiction. This is most especially true when your brain has already put resisting cravings as its last priority.

When addiction has altered your physical and psychological health, it’s challenging to overcome it without professional support. Here’s how medication, therapy, and support groups may help:

  • Medication. Some medications can help manage your withdrawal symptoms, reduce cravings, and address your co-occurring mental health issues.
  • Therapy. Individual and group therapy provides you with a safe space to find the underlying causes of your addiction and help develop healthy coping mechanisms.
  • Support groups. Support groups can help you learn from others and build a support network for long-term recovery.


How Rehab Treatment Offers Healing

With all this happening in your brain, it’s difficult to believe anything can help. However, rehab can address your cravings and even reverse some of the damage. 

For example, proper treatment could strengthen your prefrontal cortex. Not only does this help you better resist cravings, but it also allows you to make healthier choices. This is possible because of neuroplasticity. 

Neuroplasticity refers to your brain’s ability to change and adapt. With the help of detox services, medication, and therapy, your brain can positively rewire itself. 

While it may feel impossible, best believe there are tools to help you and your brain get back on track.

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In Conclusion

The addicted brain is an undeniably complex problem. From the hijacked reward system, brain circuits, and cravings, the challenges are endless. However, understanding the science behind it proves that you can overcome it. More importantly, science proves that there is hope. 

Remember that your brain is capable of rewiring itself with the right tools. You can learn how to manage your cravings, develop coping mechanisms, and strengthen your decision-making. It's not too late.

If you’re ready to take the first step and ask for help, contact us at Pacific Crest Trail Detox today!

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