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Addiction and the Brain

When a client comes to me looking for some help in overcoming addiction, whether it’s to smoking, alcohol or drugs, or indeed any other type of addiction, I always spend some time explaining the role that our brains have in addiction. Having a basic knowledge of addiction and the brain can really help in beating it.

What happens in the brain is this: when we first decide not to indulge in the activity (such as smoking), we feel calm; however, there is a structure in the emotional brain, called the amygdala, whose job it is to notice when anything out of the ordinary is happening and raise the alarm if it could mean danger. On this occasion, it notices that we haven’t had our usual cigarette, drink, shopping-channel fix. A sequence of chemical events takes place in the brain, which results in our being flooded with arousing emotional memories of how wonderful it was to smoke, drink, order goods when watching the shopping channel – and so we succumb.

Once strong desire is experienced, we recall only expectations of pleasure associated with the addictive activity. This makes our craving powerful, even overwhelming, instead of the very mild physiological discomfort we experienced at the start. But the memories are usually false because, as we know, when we feel we are being deprived of something we want, we exaggerate the joys of it. So we remember being the life and soul of the party and not being sick and having a hangover; we remember the thrill of buying new clothing and not the self-loathing while stuffing it, still in its glossy packaging, at the back of the wardrobe. In other words, the satisfaction is all in our heads.

When you smoke you do expect to experience satisfaction but you know that it is temporary – its more just a brief easing of the discomfort caused by expecting to smoke rather than pleasurable in itself. In connection with drugs, its called chasing the dragon = chasing something that never existed. Smokers think that smoking reduces stress – it actually INCREASES stress – all you are doing is avoiding those withdrawal symptoms.

The drama of addiction

The main actors in the drama of addiction: In charge of your brain is the Boss (conscious level pre-frontal cortex), below him (and you aren’t aware of these) the Secretary (anterior cingulate) and at the bottom (very primitive animal-like level) is the Security officer – basic survival – fight or flight (amygdala). When you operate on automatic, just mindlessly light up a cigarette, the boss is never involved. Not even the secretary.

On the day you decide to give up the Boss issues a stern warning “no more cigarettes”. You might have your first cup of coffee at work and the security officer thinks “coffee and cigarettes – always go together – or you see someone else light up … as in the past he sends message to secretary “get to work, we want nicotine”. He tags the information with just a small amount of dopamine (which shows its important) sends it to the secretary. Secretary recognises it as priority info but she sends a note back to the security officer “no more cigarettes” and all is well….the cigarette is resisted.

It gets towards lunch time and you get another carving for a cigarette – again the Secretary gets the message – she doesn’t want to interrupt the boss right now so decides to get more info about it all. She sends a message to the memory store previous memories associated with smoking –  those memories could be “mmmm it will relax me”, or it could be “I’ve given up,they were killing me, I’m healthy and I want to stay that way”. This is the crucial part of the whole circuit – the key to breaking it. However, if she’s impressed enough with what she reads, and that you really need to smoke, she will send in the request to her boss with her own extra sprinkling of dopamine saying “URGENT – SIGN THIS STRAIGHT AWAY.” The boss takes one sniff and his desire is overwhelming!

Using visualisation to beat addiction

I use a powerful visualisation with clients who want to overcome their addictions. This involves using all the above information about the brain and addiction and changing the positive memories

Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with addiction or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.

See also: Overcoming Addiction, Struggling With Addiction?

Extra Resources about overcoming addiction

Excellent and practical book: Freedom from addiction: The secret behind successful addiction busting by Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell    Superb video talk on addiction by Dr Gabor Mate