Understanding How Addiction Affects the Brain

BCC StaffFor Those Seeking Hope4 Comments

This article was written by BCC Counselor Jim Lang as part of our new series on addiction. In this series, our counselors are sharing how everyone can understand, overcome, and find freedom from addiction.

Every addict asks the same question: “Why?”

The “why” question takes many forms– Why do I struggle with this? Why can’t I stop? Why is it so hard?

There are many different answers to the “why” questions depending on who you ask. Answers can include your family’s influence, your genetics, your trauma, or your foolish choices.

As we have learned more about the brain and how we process thoughts and emotions, addiction experts have studied the body’s responses before and after addictive behavior. While our biology can’t fully explain why addictions occur, understanding what is happening physiologically can help us understand why addictions are so hard to overcome.

Definition: Addiction occurs when a person uses a substance (i.e., alcohol, drugs) or process (i.e., viewing pornography, eating excessively, playing video games endlessly), aka “drug”, which becomes compulsive or habitual and continues to use the “drug” despite a desire to stop and despite painful and powerful consequences.

Addicts were often introduced to a substance or process by accident. Some were introduced to pornography by accident on the internet or by a friend or family member and some were introduced to drugs as a recreational or experimental experience or as medication that a doctor prescribed.

The beginning of addiction is complex. Modern psychology looks at biology, psychology, sociology, and spirituality of the addict to help them explain the beginning of the addiction and prepare a recovery program. Many addiction counselors consider addiction a disease because they recognize that the brain has changed during addiction in a way that brings real physical impairment to the ability to reason and make wise choices. The experience of addiction is complex and involves many factors.

Addictive thought patterns occur in the parts of the brain that regulate how we feel and how we make decisions.

When we repeatedly interrupt the normal brain function with substances or repeat processes, the ability to make proper decisions gets confusing. As we continue to do what we don’t want to do and don’t do what we want to do, we develop brain patterns that are unhealthy but feel comforting or increasingly normal to us.

Modern scientific advances like brain PET scans show that the addict’s brain will react differently to life circumstances after repeated conditioning. No matter how our addiction began, there was a draw that made us feel good. Most addicts would describe it as a temporary escape from hurt, faulty belief system, and shame.

The more that addicts have “used” during these situations, the more they were drawn to it when they wanted to feel better. The more we sought this means of comfort, the more we realized that what felt good originally began to lose its effect. Unknowingly, addicts can build up a tolerance for the original use and require more of the “drug” to gain the desired effect.

This is how the cycle of addiction is born and how we can find ourselves going to our drug in an effort to feel better which only makes us feel worse, over and over and over. Then when we realize that this mechanism for coping with life’s issues is unhealthy, not to mention sinful, we try to stop over and over without success. Some of us liken this feeling to a state of confusion when our dependence on our particular sin is so powerful that we can’t seem to stop.

Science may say that the brain has changed to the point where the executive function, the thinking part of the brain, has been hijacked by the pleasure center of the brain. As a normal rule of brain chemistry, the pleasure center comes up with ideas all the time that are sinful and wrong: we call them temptations. The thinking part of the brain can say no to the pleasure center and move on.

However, once we give in to the temptation (let’s say to look at something we shouldn’t or eat more chocolate or drink more alcohol than we should) the decision-making part of the brain slows down its responses and gives in more easily. Some scholars call it hypo-frontality. The more this happens, the easier it becomes for us to give in to temptation and develop destructive habits.

If you were to talk with a biblical counselor about addictions, you would find that brain science, family history, etc. are important details not to be taken lightly. We believe that our bodies are designed by our amazing Creator. However, we can’t blame our brains for our sinful desires.

The Bible gives us far greater detail about the causes and recovery from unwanted behavior.

Stopping an addiction or really bad habit requires hard work both in our thinking and desires. After all, in some way, we loved our sin.

So, leaving entrenched patterns of thinking and behavior is never easy. The ways that we have trained our body and mind can make the pattern of overcoming an addiction far more difficult.

At the same time, both the Bible and science affirm that our thoughts and physical reactions can be transformed slowly. We can work to deny addictive behaviors and understand how our thoughts have amplified addictive behaviors as well.

The Apostle Paul helps us reconsider our choice to continue sinful patterns, justifying the choice because God always promises grace and forgiveness. Paul writes, “God forbid such a thing!”

Rather than planning to fail, recovery requires someone to pursue it like they would a full-time job. It requires a renewed desire to follow God and seek His ways.

We also need to be involved in a community that understands our weaknesses and who is willing to walk along with us.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us to exhort one another daily. When we are recovering, we need daily encouragement just as the early Christians did.

Conclusion: There are two extremes that often occur in the discussion about addiction. One extreme views addicts as prisoners to their own biology, destined to always be an addict. The other underestimates how the mind, body, and physical aspects of addiction do create tremendous difficulty in winning the battle over addiction.

Rather than getting caught in either extreme, we can find a biblical balance, where our bodies do tempt us to sin, but where God’s strength leads us to wise choices. This approach can transform an addict from bondage to freedom. 

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4 Comments on “Understanding How Addiction Affects the Brain”

  1. Excellent article! Our Counseling Center (Albany Biblical Counseling) partners with Rehoboth Ranch Ministries in Edison, GA, providing counseling, support and materials for men breaking free of addiction. I look forward to more information on addiction as it is available . Thanks again.

  2. Lennox Hypolite, student of biblical counseling: This article is very much informative, I was intrigued by the way the brain eventually adjust to a stimulus over time. I certainly believe that we can do all things through Christ who give us the strength if we believe!

  3. I’m so thankful that these articles are emailed out to us. Often I don’t get to reading them until they have been sitting in my inbox for weeks or even months. But they always seem to be right here when I need them most. God’s timing is so powerful and amazing.
    thanks for your dedacation

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