The Science of Addiction and Recovery

By Rand T.

Our human response to food and sex both involve survival issues. If you don’t eat you will die. You won’t die if you don’t have sex (you might think you will but you won’t) but getting pleasure from sex ensures we will seek it out and then there will be babies which ensures species survival. Drugs like alcohol, opiates, cannabis and stimulants work in the same brain pathway as those natural survival mechanisms.

The primary reward neurotransmitter is dopamine; food and sex stimulate dopamine release – and drugs also stimulate a high level of this release.

This occurs in our mesolimbic dopamine system which is below the level of thought. Our brain is hard-wired to respond to reward and the mesolimbic system doesn’t know what is okay or not okay. It just “likes”.

Once we like something we seek it out and start to have an anticipatory dopamine response to the thought of doing it again. Then we do it again, and again receive the reward. This is the fun part.

The not so fun part is that as we recreate that chemical reward we start to reduce the availability of dopamine and also serotonin (sense of well-being transmitter). Dopamine, in addition to being a reward transmitter, is also a connection transmitter. As the availability of these two are reduced (from overuse/overstimulation) our brain functions are reduced, particularly in the prefrontal cortex. Consequently, we have a harder time problem solving, decision making, and managing stress. Remember this is occurring in the same pathway as a food reward. When we are hungry we eat, when we are feeling stress or frustration we look for something to fix that and our limbic system will remember the reward we felt from the drug (including  alcohol) and seek it out again.

The problem is that it works to change how we feel and we have just created a new brain pathway that becomes our primary response to stress. The neurobiological rule is the neurons that fire together wire together. Unfortunately, every time we do this we are weakening our natural stress response system (it’s like paying someone else to go to the gym for you) and more and more things feel stressful which creates more and more desire to use to escape from the stress.

At this point, the “addiction” (substance use disorder) is primarily emotional, as the use increases, we will start to develop physical dependency as well. With both of these as soon as the level of the drug starts to go down our stress response system activates and we start seeking more drugs.

In recovery, we essentially reverse the process and start to recreate and exercise our natural stress response system.

Rand T. is in long-term recovery, having been free from alcohol and other drugs since March 26, 1972. That freedom “from” has given him the freedom “to” do a lot of other things.

Recovery has also given him the energy to expand much of his work into helping others affected by substance abuse. He is a Canadian Certified Addiction Counselor and an Internationally Certified Prevention Specialist in drug and alcohol concerns (kids call him the Drug Teacher). He is very grateful that he has been able to do as much work as he has in the field of substance abuse.

Rand recommends three books in particular (their covers can be seen above):

You can also read another article by Rand, posted on AA Agnostica some two years ago, right here: Life in Recovery from Addiction in Canada.


7 Responses

  1. Thomas B. says:

    I too, Rand, am a long-timer in AA, having been gifted with recovery a few months later than you in 1972 in Manhattan, New York. I was also gifted with working 28 years in the field of addiction in New York.

    I salute and thank you for an excellent article that simply explains the science underlying addiction as well as Roger, for posting it. I learned in New York City AA the three behaviors absolutely essential to longtime recovery:

    1) Don’t pick up (alcohol or other drugs), whether your ass falls off or turns to
    gold !~!~!
    2) Go to meetings, lots of them !~!~!, and
    3) Help others !~!~!

  2. Rand T. says:

    Thanks, Teresa, Bobby, Dan, and Doc for the comments. I believe that understanding the science goes a long way to help people get past the internal or external stigma.

  3. Doc says:

    Thanks for this information.

  4. Dan L says:

    Thanks Rand for putting that in such a simple and concise manner. I frequently have trouble repeating that story coherently for newcomers and even more trouble explaining it to the Old Bulls, Popes, Prophets, Messiahs and Grand Wizards in the fellowship.

    Addiction to ethanol or gambling or basically anything else is a story of endorphins and behaviour. So is recovery. It is not a big jump from here to figuring out what the AA treatment modality does to help us get sober. Deprogrammed and reprogrammed. God is there for people who think they need it but that is not my circus or my clown car.

  5. Bobby Freaken Beach says:

    I admire writers who can present a complex subject in fairly simple terms AND do so using a small amount of words. Both of those are brilliantly accomplished here. Kudos.

    Modern science is clarifying and explaining the “whys” behind what addicts and alcoholics know intuitively. It’s fascinating stuff!

  6. Teresa says:

    Thank you Rand. I appreciate the clear and simple way you present this subject.

    I have a better understanding, especially helpful in regards to articulating to another.

    Of course, the practice or exercise required of strengthening one’s natural stress response system is the hard part, and as I type this I think of accountability. Hence, the fellowship, sponsorship, an exercise buddy, a “new way of eating” friend or community. For some, a higher power helps. I like my support to be in human form.

    Sober since ‘88 and I still have issues that I need help with. Exercise. “A process or activity carried out for a specific purpose…”. Thank you again!

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