Recovery and the Psychology of Addiction

How Psychology Applies to Recovery

Knowing the psychology of addiction can be life-saving information. This is true for anyone with Substance Use Disorder (SUD), also known as addiction. But it can also be good for anyone who has an addict in their life. By learning what happens in the mind of someone with SUD, it’s easier to know how to fix it. The truth is that people with SUD think differently. This is because their brains have a totally different wiring. If you have SUD, or know someone who does, this will help clarify the special madness that comes with this disorder.

What is Addiction?

In order to comprehend the psychology of SUD, it helps to know what it is. The psychological definition of addiction/SUD is: “A chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use despite adverse consequences.” In simple terms, addiction is when someone cannot stop using drugs even when it hurts them. Understanding why this happens requires looking at both the biology and the psychology of addiction.

Biology and Addiction

Before we leap into the psychology of addiction, it’s good to know the biology. Research has shown that SUD is a complicated disease of the brain. When someone has SUD, they literally have a different brain than someone without it. To anyone without SUD, it seems like the addict is making a choice to abuse substances. In fact, they aren’t. Their brain has been overtaken by the disorder.
SUD does this by altering parts of the brain used for survival. Other parts can be fully destroyed by SUD. What this means is a person with SUD might not behave in ways that benefit them. They might also do things that are actively destructive. The reason behind this is the disease has either ruined or hijacked the very pieces of the brain meant to keep someone alive.

Fear and Survival with SUD

Here’s an example of how the brain of someone with SUD is different: A person without SUD gets nervous when they do dangerous things. They are anxious when something threatens their life. This is a natural survival mechanism. In order to stay alive, someone needs to be afraid of danger. Otherwise, they’ll risk their life needlessly until it kills them. However, this doesn’t work the same way when someone has SUD.
When someone has SUD, the same part of the brain that feels anxious or afraid gets triggered when the person doesn’t have drugs. They literally feel like their life is in danger when they don’t use. This terror leads them to use more. Over time, they need more drugs in order to get this fear to go away. While they know, logically, that they won’t die without drugs, that doesn’t change the feeling. Anyone who feels afraid for their life would do anything they could to make that dread stop. Which is part of why an addict uses.

Pleasure and Addiction

Besides feeling afraid for their lives, people with SUD have other changes in their brain. One of these is feelings of happiness. Our brains feel happy when they have dopamine and serotonin. These two chemicals make us feel good. They are part of the reward pathway of the brain. In someone without SUD, happiness comes from common activities. These include:
• Exercise
• Social Acceptance
• Accomplishment
• Eating
• Spending time with loved ones
However, when someone has SUD, these things don’t give enough dopamine and serotonin to make them feel happy. They only feel satisfied when they are using. They feel very little joy from socially acceptable activities because the disease has taken over their reward pathway.
In short, a person with SUD uses because they only feel good when they are using, and are so miserable that they feel like they’re going to die if they don’t.

Psychology of Addiction

So, a person with SUD feels terrified and miserable when they don’t use drugs. They also have trouble feeling good without drugs. While these feelings start from a biological place, they end up moving into a psychological one. This is because psychology is an effective tool for managing problems with biology. The biological part of the problem is the pain and fear that come from not using. There’s also the lack of pleasure from not using. The psychological piece is how the person thinks about these things.

Thoughts Shape Reality

Our thoughts shape our reality. While the chemistry of our brain can tell us one thing, our thoughts can tell us another. Our thoughts can also reinforce what the chemistry in our brain is saying. Here’s an example:
A person with SUD has decided to stop using. However, they now feel the fear that comes from being without drugs. They also have trouble feeling happy. Now, if the person spends all their time thinking about how miserable they are, they’re more likely to use again. If they think about how the pain will never end, they’re more likely to use. In this case, their psychology is working with their disease. Their thoughts are making the pain worse by telling them stories about how bad things are and how the pain won’t stop.
On the other hand, if the person thinks about how much better their life will be without drugs, or they tell themselves that the pain will soon pass and their brain will heal, then their psychology works against the biology.
By changing a person’s thinking, they can ease much of their suffering. They might not be able to change their biology – at least not right away – but if they avoid using drugs, eventually the SUD gets better. After a time without drugs, the brain stops creating feelings of pain and panic. It also begins to receive dopamine and serotonin from activities other than using drugs.

Psychology and Addiction Recovery

There’s a few methods that have been found to help a person with addiction. These use a psychological approach to aid in recovery. Often, these are paired with Medication-Assisted Treatments (MATs). The medication helps with the biology, while the therapy handles the psychology. Anyone seeking to recover from addiction should try all of these psychological methods:
• Behavioral Therapy such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
• Talk therapy with a trained therapist, preferably one licensed in addiction recovery.
• Support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, SMART, Rational Recovery, Refuge Recovery, or another peer support group.
• Therapy groups run by a licensed therapist.
Consult with a therapist or recovery center for even more suggestions if you’re seeking more addiction recovery options.

Get Help with Addiction

Understanding the psychology of addiction is useful. However, it’s very difficult to put into practice.
Because people are social animals, having help with SUD is very important. That’s where we come in. Our job is to help people with SUD to learn how to use psychology to battle their addiction. We have staff specially trained in teaching useful tools for coping with the damage that SUD has caused. They use various evidence-based therapy methods to give people a fighting chance against their disease. We also treat the biological part of the problem. Through medication we can ease the suffering that comes from addiction while we help arm the person psychologically for the lifelong fight for recovery.
If you or someone you know is battling SUD, don’t wait. Reach out to us. The sooner we can help repair their mind and body, the sooner they can recover from this cruel illness.

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