There are many who believe that addictions such as alcoholism are not illnesses but are something that occurs as a result of bad behaviour or poor decision making. However, the reality is that addiction is a recognised illness of the brain and those affected have absolutely no choice over their behaviour. It is easy to say that alcoholics should stop drinking and then their problems would be solved, but it is not that simple. If it were, why would anyone continue to drink alcohol when doing so causes so much harm to their own life and the lives of those they love. It is important to understand what alcohol addiction does to the brain in order to understand why it is an illness and why those affected have no control over their actions.

How Is the Brain Affected by Addiction?

There are billions of nerve cells in the brain; these cells are known as neurons. Neurons are connected directly with the many nerves in the body and they direct everything that a person does. This includes thinking, breathing and even enjoyment.

Messages, sent as electrical impulses, leave the brain to other parts of the body. They travel along neurons before jumping over gaps known as synapses to other neurons in order to get the message to its destination. These electrical impulses are helped to move by brain chemicals that are known as neurotransmitters, and these neurotransmitters are released whenever the neuron reaches the gap, or synapse. This process happens billions of times a second.

When a person decides to drink alcohol, the brain releases a neurotransmitter known as dopamine, which is also called the body’s feel-good chemical. Dopamine causes a rush of pleasure in the body, which makes the person feel good. Dopamine is also released by the brain as part of its reward system.

In some individuals, the presence of alcohol affects the brain’s reward system. The chemicals in the alcohol can overstimulate this reward system causing a large release of dopamine, which makes the individual feel very euphoric. These feelings make him or her want more and more alcohol.

In the beginning, he or she may be a social user and alcohol seeking behaviour does not control their life. Nevertheless, repeated alcohol use begins to have an impact on the reward system of the brain, to the point where the brain undergoes deep changes.

After a while, the ability to control drinking diminishes and the person gets to the point where he or she craves it. Dopamine production decreases as the brain adapts to the presence of alcohol, and the individual then requires more alcohol to get the feelings that he or she desires.

Various changes are made to the brain by repeated use of chemicals such as alcohol. Many of these changes occur in the frontal lobe, which is responsible for decision making. The changes that are made to the brain are temporary and reversible in the early days, but after a while, some of these changes become permanent. With the changes to the brain come changes to behaviour. Alcohol-seeking behaviour becomes the norm and starts to take over. The individual will begin to neglect other areas in his or her life. This will include family members, friends, and work. All that matters now is alcohol and nothing else is allowed to get in the way.

The changes that have occurred in the brain mean that the person is usually unable to resist the urge to drink. And when he or she does drink, the ability to stop is almost non-existent. Alcoholics have no choice over their urge to drink. They cannot ignore their compulsions and even when they are aware that there will be negative consequences if they drink, they will continue to do so due to being powerless to resist.

Scientists now believe that the many changes that occur in the brain can affect a person’s ability to recover fully. Unfortunately, some of the changes that arise are permanent and experts believe that it is these changes that often lead some individuals back to substance abuse, even years after overcoming their addiction. It may only take one cue or one trigger to cause a person to relapse, even decades later.

How Does Recovery Affect the Brain?

During the recovery process, the brain will undergo even more changes. The effects that alcohol has had on the brain can be reversed to some extent with a programme of rehabilitation. The aim of addiction recovery is to help the individual’s brain unlearn the addictive behaviours he or she has been displaying for a long time.

If the patient is prepared to commit to a programme of recovery and work hard, he or she can look forward to positive changes in the brain. Effort and patience are required, but with a good programme and a desire to change, it is possible to get sober and stay sober.

The process of getting sober is tackled with detoxification, but to stay sober, the individual will need to complete a programme of rehabilitation. Rehab programmes are either inpatient or outpatient based but all involve professional counsellors and therapists working with patients to help them learn how to avoid triggers and cues going forward.

Various principles and activities of recovery will be taught during rehabilitation, and patients need to focus on these if they are to have long-term success. There are so many rewards and benefits to getting sober including better health and improved relationships with loved ones. Avoiding stress and the triggers that could activate alcohol-seeking behaviour is also necessary.

Recovering addicts are also taught how to replace maladaptive behaviours with positive thinking and behaviours. Over time, new neural pathways are developed and these new pathways will help to guide the addict’s decisions and actions. The brain will then change for the better slowly but surely and the individual will no longer think about alcohol all the time. Positive thoughts and sobriety will become the norm and cravings will subside.

Scientists have discovered that during rehabilitation, the damaged parts of the brain are not repaired but, instead, new neural pathways are created. Over time, the process of directing thoughts, experiences and actions can help to encourage the growth of new neurons and can help to create new connections between them. Old or lost areas of the brain are replaced with newly developed ones and the production of neurotransmitters is normalised once more.

The individual’s ability to make good decisions and use good judgement will return and will enable him or her to control behaviour and keep impulses and cravings in check. With help from professional counsellors and therapists, the brain can be rewired.

The Power of Positive Thinking

Finding the right programme of rehabilitation is important when it comes to addiction recovery. There are many people who find themselves in a cycle of addiction and never manage to get their life back on track. But this is because they have not found a programme that works for them.

These individuals would inevitably find it hard to believe that positive thinking can work wonders when it comes to getting sober and staying sober. Healing the brain takes time and effort, and provided that the individual is prepared to stick with the programme, the rewards will come.

Thinking and talking about recovery as well as acting can help to ensure a successful outcome. In addition, individuals should remember to get enough sleep and relaxation as well as minimising stress levels and having a good nutrition and exercise plan. Incorporating these elements into a recovery programme will go a long way to helping with long-term sobriety.

The more the person thinks about recovery, the greater his or her chance of staying on the right track. All actions should be focused towards the goal of recovery and sobriety should be at the heart of everything the person does. With this type of attitude, staying clean and sober will become natural.

Where to Get Help for Addiction?

If you are affected by alcohol addiction or if someone you love has been struggling, contact us here at Middlegate today. We can put you in touch with a suitable rehab provider in your area where you will be able to access excellent programmes of detox and rehabilitation to help you recover. We work closely with those directly affected by addiction but also with worried family members and friends.

All you need to do is give us a call right now on our dedicated helpline and we will get to work on your behalf immediately.

What Alcohol Addiction Does to the Brain