As family members in a relationship with someone who is dependent on substances, we can feel as though we are trying to navigate in the dark. We do not understand our loved one’s behavior, their decision to continue to use is baffling if not infuriating and heartbreaking.
Well, part of this could be attributed to what is happening inside your loved one’s head – literally, substances affect our brains in various ways.
I need to preface this with the fact that I am not a neuroscientist, however for me personally and professionally knowing a little about the effects that substances of abuse have on the brain has created curiosity. It has helped with problem-solving options. It has decreased judgment and feelings of helplessness within me that have enabled me to move forward with hope and understanding.
Let us navigate this together
The main area in the brain to be impacted by substances is the pleasure and reward pathway. These pathways have a high concentration of the neurotransmitter dopamine who’s job it is to produce feelings of pleasure -dopamine makes us feel really good. It’s that feeling you get when you see someone you love or when eating your favourite meal.
We are designed as humans to repeat behaviors that make us feel good, like sex and eating. We repeat them as we get a hit of dopamine that we want to have again this is nature’s way of ensuring survival. Clever aren’t we?
Okay, so that’s what dopamine does for a non-addicted brain. Let’s see what happens when you add substances.
When we use substances our brains get flooded with dopamine and we feel amazing (and of course don’t forget we are designed to repeat feel good behaviors) this creates a number of problems within our brains.
Problem 1: this dopamine is produced by artificial means and disrupts our natural ability to produce, balance and absorb dopamine.
This means that we seek out the substance at higher and higher levels (this is called tolerance) over time just to feel okay. The brain then attempts to keep a balance and reacts by lowering the amount of naturally producing dopamine.
Problem 2: the brain has down graded its natural dopamine levels in response to the artificial hit it is getting from the substance.
When you take the substance away there is not enough naturally occurring dopamine to feel okay, there is often no interest in life – (in early recovery it is not uncommon for people to enter a state of depression). Furthermore, the inability to feel pleasure contributes to “cravings” which are physiologically highly uncomfortable that can influence a decision to keep using or precipitate a lapse following a period of abstinence.
The good news is that the brain can recover and learn new ways of functioning this however takes time.
A combination of behavioral and sometimes medical interventions as well as your understanding and positive communication will support a return to a naturally functioning brain.
There are 2 other structures in our brains that are put out of balance by substances the pre frontal cortex and the limbic system.
The prefrontal cortex
The prefrontal cortex is the part of our brains that acts like a stop sign. It’s the consequences and planning part of our brains. When affected by substance this system shuts down. How many of us have said, “I would not have done that (insert embarrassing behaviour) if I was sober?” It is what enables us to say “ No” to an impulse.
The limbic system
The limbic system is the part of our brain that is responsible for 3 key functions- emotions, memories and stimulation.
In substance use this part of the brain gets highly excited- the brain remembers the feel good of the use and anticipates the reward of using, because the pre frontal cortex has shut down the brain will urgently go forward with the desire to use, this is an automatic process – it all happens outside our ability to control it.
The effect of substances
Lowered dopamine levels disable the prefrontal cortex and an overly excited limbic system equals all go and no stop for you loved one.
Understanding that this is not their fault can lower your frustration and allow you some freedom of choice in how to support your loved one. It is the difference in separating your loved ones behavior from “ they are useless and are not trying hard enough” to “ I know that they can not experience much pleasure at the moment I might suggest a walk.”
So there you have it a basic guide to what maybe is going on inside your loved ones head. I hope this information offers you a different way of interpreting and understanding and supporting your loved one and your self towards recovery
As always you learning and changing your behavior benefits both you and your loved one. How you think about a problem is the first step to a solution and you are in control of what you think.
- Addiction Recovery is Possible
- About Araluen Clarke – Addiction Recovery Specialist
- Substance Abuse? Is Your Substance Use Impacting your Life?
- How do I help my loved one change?