Getting Inside the Mind of an Addict

If someone you love is addicted to drugs or alcohol, it can be very difficult to understand their condition. Even if you “get” that your loved one is living with a chronic disease, it is quite different from other ones like arthritis, diabetes, epilepsy or asthma. Those diseases don’t cause changes to the affected person’s mind. The results of this impact on the brain make it difficult for those affected to think rationally or even understand they need treatment.

Drug Abuse as a Brain Disorder

Research has shown that addiction is a brain disorder, and compulsive substance abuse is one of its characteristics. Each drug — including alcohol — produces a different type of effect for the user. Some of them are stimulants, which produce a sense of heightened awareness and more energy, while others make the user feel relaxed and sleepy.

addiction is a brain disorder

Brain cells react to substances a person ingests, as well as the chemicals and hormones the body produces naturally. These reactions lead to more chemical reactions, which effect changes in thought, feelings, memory and movement. With repeated use, drugs interfere with the brain’s neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers.

Neurotransmitters flow around, collect and act at certain sites on specific cell surfaces called receptor proteins. Each receptor protein is shaped in order to fit and receive one type of neurotransmitter and bind to it. This process works in the same way that a key works in a lock. After a signal binds to a neurotransmitter, it can travel to the next cell.

In a situation where a cell is being overwhelmed with too much neurotransmitter, the brain’s control system usually comes into play. The cell is able to reabsorb any excess, which will be used later on in a process called “reuptake.” This is supposed to prevent an overload of chemical signals from moving through the brain and filling too many receptors at once — too much activity can cause serious physical and mental issues.

Some drugs block this normal process of reabsorption in the brain, leaving too much of the neurotransmitters present. Others have the opposite reaction and block the brain from releasing neurotransmitters. The most common neurotransmitters that have been identified by researchers as linked to addiction are norepinephrine, serotonin, gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA) and dopamine.

neurotransmitters in the brain

Dopamine and the Brain

When certain types of drugs are taken, the brain responds by releasing a rush of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that has been described as the “pleasure chemical.” Dopamine is used by a bundle of neurons in the brain to send messages to other neurons. The human brain doesn’t have a large number of dopamine neurons — they make up only a fraction of one percent of the human brain.

The results of research studies indicate that the brain’s dopamine system can be activated by a number of activities that bring pleasure, such as listening to music, making money, reading a funny cartoon, winning a video game, eating something or having sex. Even getting revenge can trigger the release of dopamine.

how is an addict's mind different

Addictive drugs make the brain respond with even higher levels of dopamine than natural rewards. The difference between the two kinds of experiences is that drugs like alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine, etc., don’t leave the user feeling satisfied. The brain remembers what the experience felt like and wants to do it again.

Effects of Opiate Use on the Brain

Researchers found that the brain is equipped with opium receptors. For this reason, narcotics, which include prescription drugs developed to relieve pain as well as street drugs like heroin, can become addictive. Prescription drugs in this category include medications like Vicodin, Oxycontin, Percocet, Fentanyl and Dilaudid.

When opiates are used, they bind to the opiate receptors in the brain, creating a “high.” With repeated use, these drugs keep the opiate receptors full and create tolerance. The brain also closes off some receptors so that it is desensitized to the presence of the drug, which means the addict needs to continue to use larger amounts in order to achieve the high they crave.

The human brain has its own opium receptors, not because man was meant to use narcotics, but because humans produce endorphins. These are natural reactions to pain and stress, and one common example is the “runner’s high” that athletes can experience during prolonged periods of exercise.

Effects of Cocaine on the Brain

Cocaine doesn’t bind to a receptor — instead it interrupts the reuptake process that stops the action of dopamine. It also blocks the reuptake of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain.

cocaine interrupts reuptake

As a result, the nerve cells in the brain become overstimulated, and the user experiences intense feelings of joy and excitement. Dopamine flows and floods the pleasure receptors until it eventually uses up the brain’s existing supply temporarily. At this point, the user experiences withdrawal symptoms, which include depression, irritability, paranoia and cravings for more cocaine.

Effects of Tranquilizers and Alcohol on the Brain

Tranquilizers, like Valium, don’t have their own specific receptors in the user’s brain. Instead, they act on a foster receptor called GABA, which is a slow-down neurotransmitter. These drugs slow down inhibition and act as sedatives. If the GABA in the brain is increased to a high enough level, the brain will shut down.

Alcohol acts on GABA receptors as well. It is known as a depressant, and people turn to it for its sedative effect. Taken in high enough doses, it will cause someone to lose consciousness.

Once Addicted, the Urge to Use Is a Driving Force

Once an addiction is established, having access to the drug of choice is elevated to the same level as behaviors designed to keep you alive. It’s difficult for someone who is not an addict to imagine that any type of drug would be as essential to someone as eating and drinking, but in a drug addict’s mind, they rank at the same level: essential for survival.

how does addiction change the brain

The craving for a person’s drug of choice and the urge to satisfy it become the driving forces in an addict’s life. For someone in the throes of an active addiction, nothing will get in the way of being able to get drunk or high, and it’s difficult for family members to get inside the head of an addict to fully appreciate this fact. The addiction always comes first, and anyone or anything else is always going to take a back seat to the need to satisfy it.

It’s very difficult to look at someone you care about and not understand why their behavior is so different from the person you know. The answer is they are no longer in control of what they are doing. Their addiction is calling the shots and not letting them think or behave the way they normally would. At this point, they probably don’t feel normal unless they are using drugs or alcohol.

Brain Changes Interfere With Normal Thinking Processes

The addict’s brain undergoes changes interfering with his or her thought processes. He or she may look like a person who is able to think and reason rationally, but that is no longer the case. The changes interfere with an addict’s ability to make rational decisions, to think clearly and to control his or her behavior.

thought processes in addiction

It’s difficult for an addict’s family members and friends to understand how the person they know can change so completely due to the influence of chemicals. The addicted person doesn’t have the ability to appreciate that what they are doing is having a negative impact on their job, their finances, their personal relationships and their future. They also lack the capacity to realize that continuing on this path could have negative effects on their health and may end up shortening their life expectancy by a number of years.

The addiction can also be so powerful that people find ways to deny even having a problem in order to keep using. Some of them rationalize their behavior or underestimate how much they are drinking or using, how it affects themselves or others or say that they can stop any time they want. All of these are strategies that indicate their normal thinking process is affected and the addiction is trying to keep going.

Addicts Have Their Own Type of Logic

If you were to ask someone who is actively addicted to drugs or alcohol why they continue to use, they may not be able to explain it to you in language that you would be able to understand. An addict would, however, be able to come up with one or more reasons why they are using drugs and why they think they should be allowed to continue with this behavior.

When family members or friends become frustrated or angry at an addict and challenge them about their behavior, what they are doing to themselves and the impact their addiction has on other members of the family, the addict will usually just get angry and defensive.

making excuses in addiction

As their lives start to spin out of control as a direct result of their drug of choice, the addict will have plenty of explanations for why these events are occurring. None of them will involve the addict taking responsibility for his or her own behavior. Instead, an addict goes through a number of mental gymnastics in order to come up with excuses to either explain why something is not their fault or to use the event as an excuse as to why they should continue using so they can cope with all the stressful events going on around them.

Justifications Addicts Use

Many families have tried talking to, reasoning with or getting angry with their addicted loved one in an effort to get them to turn their life around. This ends up turning into a frustrating situation for the family, since the addict is usually not prepared to make any life changes simply because their family wants them to. The pull of the addiction is too strong, and the addict will use justifications that sound something like the following:

  • They have a lot of stress in their life, and alcohol and drugs are a necessary coping mechanism due to their high stress levels.
  • The problems the addict is facing are due to the people in their life, hurtful past experiences, bad luck, etc. The drug use or alcohol is not a major problem.
  • The family members and friends who are complaining about the addict’s drug or alcohol use just need to “lighten up” and learn how to have some fun themselves.
  • People who don’t take drugs are just too and boring.
  • Taking drugs is a way to open up one’s creativity.
  • Other people should just mind their own business about the addict’s drug use. If they would simply leave him or her alone, then everything would be just fine.
  • If the addict stopped using drugs or alcohol, it would mean that they would be living the rest of their life deprived of any enjoyment. Life would not hold any pleasure at all.
  • A life in recovery means never being truly happy, since it requires having to do without chemicals forever.
  • The people who work in the recovery community have no idea what it’s like to be an addict. They are just looking to take money from people.
  • The risks of substance abuse published in the media are exaggerated.
  • The risks associated with substance abuse are things that happen to people who don’t know what they’re doing. As long as you are careful and know what you’re doing around your drug of choice, everything will be fine.

Addicts and Denial

denial in addiction

Besides justifications, denial is another major part of drug and alcohol addiction. It’s a type of defense mode that addicts use to rationalize and explain their behavior. They may not be consciously aware they’re in denial, since this is the mind’s way of refusing to admit to, and then have to face the consequences of, the reality of the situation.

Humans use denial in other situations, too. It’s not something that applies only to addicts. If you have ever been given bad news that you found difficult to believe, your mind has used denial to shield you from absorbing the full impact right away. As long as you didn’t stay “stuck” in that place and came to the conclusion that what you were told was true, this protective reflex did what it was supposed to do.

In the case of addicts, their denial means they do stay stuck in their deluded thought processes, which means the addiction continues to get fed a steady supply of chemicals.

Inside the Mind of an Alcoholic or Drug Addict: How They Are Different

Is the mindset of a drug addict or alcoholic really all that different from someone who is not living with an addiction? They are people who have learned at some point that using chemicals is a form of emotional anesthetic. When an addict is under the influence of their drug of choice, they can tune out strong emotions for a time. The specific strong emotions they are trying to escape will vary depending on the person, but they may include anxiety, depression, anger, shame, low self-esteem and lack of confidence, among others. Additional factors that contribute to addiction include mental illness and lack of maturity, which may lead the addict to make selfish decisions or lie.

Mental Illness

Some addicts use chemicals as a way to self-medicate and treat the symptoms of a mental illness. They may not recognize they are living with a mental health concern, or they may not want to see a mental health professional for diagnosis and treatment. There is still a stigma around mental illness, and some people may think that being diagnosed with a mental illness means having to be hospitalized, but this is usually not the case. In many instances, treatment is offered on an outpatient basis.

Lack of Emotional Maturity

Rather than facing the issues that are causing them to feel stressed or uncomfortable, people who become addicts tend to want to run away from them. Not everyone who is going through difficult situations seeks professional help, even though it may be beneficial. There are other ways to deal with difficult emotions that do not involve turning to chemicals.

running away from problems

Some people decide to participate in sports or become involved in community groups or clubs as a way to channel difficult emotions. Others may journal, use hobbies or look to family and friends or their religious community for support.

Selfish Decisions

It’s difficult to determine whether the self-interested attitude that many addicts display in their relationships is a personality trait they would have developed in the normal course of events or if it was brought on as a way to avoid further hurt by other people. The idea of “looking out for number one” likely develops as a means of avoiding further emotional damage from others.

Once the addiction takes hold, the addict may make selfish decisions in order to feed his or her disease. Nothing will get in the way of ensuring that the addiction continues as long as the addict has access to sources of drugs or alcohol, or money and property they can sell to get more.

addicts can make selfish decisions


The ability to be deceitful toward others ties in with the trait of being selfish, listed above. The addiction comes first for those who are actively abusing drugs or alcohol. Often, addicts will lie to family members, friends or others in order to keep the addiction going.

As explained earlier with the concept of denial, deception also works on the addict themselves. They don’t take responsibility for their actions when they are using their drug of choice. If they were confronted during this phase of their illness, they would be able to come up with many reasons why they are using and need to continue in their lifestyle.

Drug and Alcohol Addiction Rehab Addresses the Mind of the Addict

One of the elements of drug and alcohol recovery at 12 Keys Rehab involves having the addict learn how to recognize the behaviors they have been displaying during the course of their disease and understand how important it is for them to be accountable for their actions. This process is not only important to healing relationships with their family members and friends, but also toward going on to create a new life in sobriety.

If you are concerned about a loved one’s drug or alcohol use, call 12 Keys Rehab today.



The Addiction Blog