How many of us have thought that substance abuse was our fault, or even our choice? How many of us tell ourselves that we can stop at any time? Both of those thought processes are untrue, because becoming addicted to substances is something that happens inside our brains and bodies. We do not have as much control over it as we think, and our bodies and brains may no longer give us an easy opt out. To understand why substance abuse is such a struggle, it is important that we understand how our brain becomes addicted to substances.

The Addiction Cycle

The addiction cycle begins with the ingestion of substances into our bodies. While some people may be more genetically prone to addiction or have environmental factors that increase our chances of becoming addicted, the cycle has three basic stages:

  1. Intoxication/binge
  2. Negative affect/withdrawal
  3. Preoccupation/anticipation

These three stages describe where our brain is at in the addiction cycle at any given time. Either we are actively using substances in the first stage, or we are experiencing withdrawal or other adverse reactions, or our brains are preoccupied with the anticipation of the next drink or fix. A report from the Surgeon General includes a chapter on the neurobiology of substance use, misuse and addiction. The following is a very simplified description of that process:

What Is a Reward in the Brain?

When we do something healthy for our bodies, such as exercising, eating good food or enjoying a healthy relationship, our brain rewards us by releasing something called dopamine, which create pleasurable sensations. The purpose is to motivate us to repeat these healthy things over and over.

Substances may hijack this process, because they cause the brain to release dopamine, even if substances are not healthy. Thus, each time we partake of our substance, our brain is rewarding us, even though it should be warning us about the dangers of the drug. This reward system falsely, and often powerfully, is ignoring the other parts of the brain that might warn us of the dangers of substance use and addiction, and just makes our bodies want more of the substance.

Why the Brain Wants More Substances

The release of dopamine becomes so desirable that the brain will actually change its functions and create an emotional need for substances by triggering the circuitry that senses emotional danger, so that we feel anxious and stressed out when we do not have the substances in our bodies. This process combined with potential damage to the decision-making portion of our brain that prevents us from recognizing the harm of repeated substance use can change the way our brain functions. Not entirely unlike how a computer virus can cause the circuits to function differently, substances take over our brain.

How Substances Change the Reward Center in the Brain

The addiction cycle becomes the driving force to change the reward center in our brain. Instead of focusing on healthy sources for the release of dopamine, the brain focuses collectively on stage three of the addiction cycle, a preoccupation with or anticipation of more substances.

This intense desire increases with repeated use, and the repetition of the addiction cycle. The parts of our brain that should warn us about the dangers of substance use and addiction or help us to stop ourselves are rewired to help fulfill the addiction cycle. With some drugs, they are so powerful that this process happens very quickly, while other substances take a little longer. But at the end of the day, the reward center in our brain is rewired and set to function primarily for one thing: substance abuse.

Why We Need Help with Addiction

When our brain has been hijacked by this addiction cycle, it can be difficult to break the cycle on our own. We must seek clinical and medical help in order to interfere with this modified reward center in our brain. Taking our brain back requires treatment and the help of people who have been there and understand how difficult this process can be. Because of the neurological changes that occur in our brain during addiction, we need help to intervene and help our brain to try to heal. This is why cravings are so intense and we feel like we cannot stop on our own. It is not a weakness to ask for help. We are going to battle with our own minds to reverse the changes substances have caused. It is a battle we can win, but we will need help.


You may think you are just having some fun, but what is happening inside of your brain each time you partake of a substance is actually a scientifically verified process that changes the reward centers in your brain. Just like you would not attempt to overcome another serious condition without medical help, rewiring your brain after substance abuse requires proper intervention as well. At New Life, our Maryland outpatient treatment program specializes in helping you take control of your brain again. Find out more by calling us at (877) 929-2571. Now you know a little bit about how your brain becomes addicted. It is time for you to find out how to break that cycle for good.