Living with a substance use disorder can feel a lot like you're not in control. You can try to quit, but with cravings and withdrawal symptoms, most of us eventually slip and relapse without treatment. Even after you've gone through withdrawal, you still experience cravings and you still want the drug or substance you were using. While most of us know that addiction is first defined as chemical dependence and tolerance, the continued pressure of addiction after detox may have you wondering if your addiction is actually in your mind or your body.
The truth is that addiction is both. Your mind and your body each have a strong role in addiction, cravings, and long-term recovery.
How Your Body Affects Addiction
Your body is usually where addiction starts, but not always. Most of us are aware of the process of developing tolerance, where you need more and more of a substance to achieve the same effect, or a measured dose no longer achieves the same effect. This can happen quickly in just a few doses for some drugs and metabolisms, and it can happen slowly, over the course of several months or even a year.
This increasing resistance to drugs and alcohol is typically defined as a defense mechanism, used by the body to return to normal function, even with the drug in its system. Because most drugs mimic natural processes in the body, the body naturally reacts and works to balance out. Unfortunately, this means that someone looking for a specific effect will need more and more of the substance to achieve that effect.
Over time, substances also affect the natural balance of chemicals in the brain. If you consistently drink or use opiates or another drug, your body becomes accustomed to having them in the system. For example, if you take opiates regularly, they interact with the brain, agonizing opiate receptors to release dopamine and changing the normal level of chemicals in the brain. When you stop using, you typically go into withdrawal as the body rapidly adjusts to not having those chemicals – typically resulting in strong flu-like symptoms alongside more dangerous symptoms such as convulsions, anxiety, panic, paranoia, and hallucinations.
If you're an addict, then you know that stopping using can result in extremely painful and uncomfortable symptoms like sweating, chills, fever, muscle pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and a wide variety of other symptoms. But, they're less than half the picture.
As an addict, you know that quitting isn't easy, and the largest part of the reason why is not physical withdrawal, but mental addiction. Most addicts successfully make it through the worst period of physical withdrawal before relapsing, convincing themselves they can take one more hit or drink – and then go back to withdrawal. With the worst of the physical symptoms over, it's not your body keeping you addicted.
For example, the average smoker attempts to quit and makes it through the first four to five days without a cigarette. At this point, most or even all of the real withdrawal symptoms are gone. But the average smoker attempting to quit relapses. On their own, most smokers will attempt to quit anywhere from 19.6-32 times before successfully doing so, with an average quit time of 4-28 days. Most withdrawal symptoms only last 4 days.
However, this probably isn't really news to you. We've known for a long time that addiction centers in the mind. For example, the Big Book, or the Alcoholics Anonymous text, written in 1939:
“Therefore, the main problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind, rather than in his body.” _ Alcoholic Anonymous, page 23.
Mental or psychological addiction likely stems from 3 different causes, all of which must be met and dealt with in order to overcome addiction.
Changes in the Brain – Substance dependence, including drugs and alcohol, create chemical changes in the brain, changing how your body reacts. This naturally changes your mental perception and how you think. For example, most substances increase production of neurotransmitters, causing the brain to naturally decrease production. This means that when you stop taking the substance, you may be left feeling numb, depressed, anxious, or emotionally blunted. This can lead you to feeling incomplete or unwell without the substance, so that self-medication and taking a substance to feel less stressed results in taking a substance just to feel normal.
Reliance – Reliance happens when you mentally depend on something to get you through the day. For example, many people use substances such as drugs or alcohol to self-medicate. When you start, the substance makes you feel better and takes away stress, numbs emotion, and numbs pain. But, as you go on, you become reliant on the drug, and your brain may come to rely on having the drug to get through the day or through an event. So, something that started out as occasional becomes necessary, because you are reliant on it. For example, many people who take valium to stop panic attacks eventually have panic attacks because they don't have valium to stop the panic attacks. This kind of mental reliance on a substance causes panic and anxiety without the substance, and can cause your symptoms to appear worse than they were before.
The Pleasure Effect – Chances are that if you eat chocolate or French fries or have something else you find pleasurable; your body will respond. When you do or consume something that causes pleasure, your body stores that memory away and then when you have the chance to do it again, reminds you with something of a gentle nudge. "Oh, I liked that, let's do it again". So, a person who really likes chocolate might find that they start out with one piece and eventually buy a bar every time the walk by the store, and might even consume the whole thing in one setting.
This same effect happens with substances, only worse. Most substances trigger neurotransmitter receptors in the brain, releasing serotonin and dopamine, which make you feel good. The more you have, the stronger this effect gets, until you're stuck thinking about it. Cravings are a natural response in the body, which enable you to make choices that make you happy – like enjoying a chocolate bar instead of eating a bowl of cabbage. But, with drugs and alcohol, this natural response of the mind becomes much more pronounced, and cravings can become painful. This drives you to get more of the substance, even after your body is no longer chemically dependent.
These three effects play a large part in dependence, but there is another mental factor. Habit. Humans are very much creatures of habit. We tend to do the same things, in the same way, as often as possible. Nearly anyone can say that they've woken up at the same time every day and taken the same route to work, did the same things all day and then went home without feeling any worse for it. And, most people experience the same habit at home. Chances are you brush your teeth at the same time or in the same way every day. Most people have the same breakfast every day. We build habits, and then it feels wrong or strange or uncomfortable to break them. Taking drugs or drinking alcohol builds the same habits.
Addiction is about both mental and physical dependence. But, while you can likely get over most of the physical symptoms of addiction within a few weeks at most, mental addiction lasts much longer. Going through detox may be painful, but it's only the first step in a long journey to rebuilding your mental habits, retraining your brain, and teaching yourself to live without something that you've trained your mind to need.
For many people, this means seeking out treatment, going through behavioral therapy such as CBT, and learning new skills such as stress management or mindfulness to cope with triggers, cravings, and stress. By treating the physical addiction and then the mental addiction, you can move past addiction and then recover.
If you or your loved one is struggling with addiction, you can talk to us about addiction treatment programs at our affordable drug and alcohol rehab that fit your needs, contact us today. The Anaheim Lighthouse is a modern and effective addiction treatment center in Southern California.