How Drug Addiction & Other “Highs” Affect the Brain

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

Hand holding a brainThis week, the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) released an important new document, which supports what those of us in the treatment field have known for a long time: that addiction is a chronic brain disorder. It isn’t anybody’s fault; anything that activates a brain pleasure center is going to produce good feelings or a certain “high” and have the potential to be used addictively. We tend to associate addictive behaviors with drug and alcohol abuse, but many studies are showing that substance-free behaviors such as gambling, having sex, exercising, eating, and even tanning can affect the brain in similar ways and lead to significant consequences.

This obviously doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat or exercise. But it does mean you should be aware of your risks—especially if you are in recovery. As humans, we love feeling that high that comes from pleasurable behaviors, and those of us who have a tendency towards addiction are likely to repeat those behaviors over and over again in order to seek that initial high. We may even continue repeating them once the high is no longer pleasurable, simply because our brains have gotten used to it.

For the general population, it’s important to note that most of these pleasurable behaviors (exercising, eating, having sex) are only harmful in truly extreme cases. Some (tanning, gambling, drinking alcohol) are best kept to a minimum and monitored. Others, such as abusing drugs, can be dangerous or deadly, even in small doses.  Additionally, folks in recovery from substance abuse problems need to keep an eye on all of these behaviors—even the seemingly harmless ones. We know how our brains work, and we know that we have the potential to go overboard.

If you’re in recovery, be aware of your habits.  Protect your recovery and set limits for yourself, even in areas (tanning, exercising, chocolate, gambling, etc.) that were not previously a problem for you. If you can’t keep to those limits, walk away—or get help. If you find yourself hiding or lying about an activity, or missing work or social plans to engage in it, you’ve got a problem. It doesn’t matter if it’s heroin, spending, or internet gaming—if an activity or behavior has started to dominate your life, step back and ask yourself, “Is this what I want as my top priority? Is this stopping me from achieving my goals?” Once you have that answer, you’ll know what to do.  And remember – let’s be careful out there!

Deni Carise, Ph.D.
Chief Clinical Officer, Phoenix House

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