Your Chemically Dependent Brain Is Just Trying To Survive

Ever wonder why you are the way you are? Uncover the mystery behind your chemical dependency—and discover how it's ultimately rooted in your brain’s quest to survive.

October 16, 2021
A ball of energy with electricity beaming all over the place.
Photo Credit: Hal Gatewood | Unsplash

If you are suffering from chemical dependency, you are not alone. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, you are 1 of approximately 19.7 million Americans living with a substance use disorder. That is a relatively staggering number, given the ever-present stigma associated with addiction.

Nevertheless, this number does not even come close to the scale of all those who are affected by addiction in one way or another. Chemical dependency is as much of an epidemic as any other major health crisis that inundates a civilization. However, for the most part, this particular topic remains exceptionally taboo and cast into the shadowy underworld of America.

Chemical dependency cost Americans as a whole more than $740 billion in 2017 due to lost workplace productivity, healthcare expenses, and costs related to crime. There is seemingly no end in sight, and as polluted as the rehabilitation industry can be, this situation will likely get worse before better. So, although it may not be a club you would have voluntarily signed up for, you are in it, and in one way or another, so is almost everybody else. But how and why does your brain associate your dependence to chemicals with a provision necessary for survival?

Your Brain Is A Liar

That's right. Your brain is a big fibber, but its heart is in the right place, at least. This can make life somewhat problematic to navigate because, generally speaking, your brain is your command center. Enter the reptilian brain. This section of the brain, formally known as the amygdala, is responsible for telling you to get comfortable or seek safety. It is also beholden to other critical elements such as regulating emotional behavior, sensing fear, invoking the desire to reproduce, and providing general motivation. 

Now, another factor at play here is dopamine. Dopamine is your brain’s reward center, and the reptilian portion of your brain loves to interact with it. When something pleasurable occurs, like eating chocolate ice cream, your brain releases dopamine, and your reptilian brain says, “Whoa! More please!”

Drugs and alcohol significantly disrupt this system through an insanely intense and euphoric dopamine surge. The feeling is so fiercely favorable; it leaves the chocolate ice cream you once loved sinking to the likes of a stale and unsalted cracker by comparison. That is some seriously potent influence. It is so dominant that because no other substance or experience can match it, your now misguided brain starts convincing itself that maintaining the drug's effect is as vital for survival as oxygen or water. So, chemical dependency is not a matter of you mustering up the willpower to stop, like so many uneducated people erroneously believe. Instead, you have found yourself dodging blows in a gloves-off, bare-knuckle brawl against your most primitive human instincts. 

Your Brain Has Not Warranted You A “Free Pass”

Just because your brain has been led to believe its very existence hinges on conserving the euphoria produced by the substances it craves does not mean you have been granted a free pass to keep trudging down the road towards suffering and despair. As difficult and overwhelming as it may seem, you are ultimately responsible for retraining your brain and restoring function to the mammalian and human aspects.

Essentially, this journey can only embark by embracing abstinence—and you absolutely should seek professional and medical assistance for this incredibly crucial first step. Withdrawal is altogether physically and emotionally miserable. Nobody enjoys the process, and it is downright dangerous depending on your substance of choice. Medical detox is likely unavoidable to ensure your safety. 

Only after you clear out the toxins and become freed from the physical dependence will your ability to determine your destiny come back into play. At that point, you are back in control, and you can start forming the strategies and developing the tools to sustain a life in recovery. 

The Reward System Overhaul 

The reward system needs a complete overhaul at this point. Engaging in healthy activities that facilitate the reward system will begin to build those new pathways. Over time, that chocolate ice cream is back to providing you with a pleasurable experience. You will relearn how to make decisions and connect with other people. You will finally start living. 

A vital starting point for your journey in recovery is discovering your purpose or something that invokes passion—a healthy purpose or passion, that is. Detoxes and treatment centers do not push this idea as much as they could and probably should, at least not in my experience. 

Find that spark to ignite your flame, something to propel you out of bed in the morning. Add fuel to the fire. Get connected or plugged in somewhere. Learn something new. Find your outlet. Join your tribe. Creating a life you want to be involved in will make relapse and the return to former ways far less likely.

There are many reasons why getting clean and sober is beneficial to you, your family, friends, and your communities. The road to recovery is not always easy, but it is entirely worth the trip. Very few things worth doing are ever easy. If it were, everybody would be doing it. There are tons of resources available to you and thousands of people or places who would care for you to reach out. What you cannot do alone, we can do together. Join the tribe and get busy living.