You've Stopped Using, So Why is Your Brain Still Craving?

Harnessing the Power of Natural Positive Reinforcers in Recovery

Posted Oct 28, 2016

Carolyn Ross/Shutterstock
Source: Carolyn Ross/Shutterstock

When you’re in the grip of addiction, your view of the world can narrow and be focused only on your “drug of choice.”.  Everything else – friends, family, work – loses its appeal. Before long, it seems that that there is only one possible source of pleasure in your life. And in a sense this is true; your drug of choice may be the only thing that really makes you feel good anymore. You can find yourself in this downward spiral whether you’re addicted to a substance (alcohol or drugs) or a process (such as anorexic food restriction, bulimia, food addiction, compulsive eating, gambling, or sex).

How does this happen? Why do you get so focused on that one source of pleasure? Why do you now find little happiness in all the other things you used to enjoy? And most importantly, how do you get out of this cycle? The single-minded determination to addiction is not a personal failing; it’s a matter of brain chemistry. Dopamine is at the root of the problem – and it also offers a solution.

According to research in the field of neuroscience, any addiction – whether to eating, alcohol, or something else – follows a predictable cycle. When you use your drug of choice, your brain gives you a hit of dopamine, and you experience a rewarding sense of pleasure. You also learn to associate that pleasure with the substance or behavior, which then becomes a cue for the possibility of more pleasure in the future. Even the expectation of using can cause dopamine release.

With time, ordinary pleasures (such as going for a walk or having coffee with a friend) lose their potency compared to the reward you get from your addiction. Everything else pales in comparison.

The cruel irony however is that eventually, the substance or compulsive behavior triggers smaller increases in dopamine. It doesn't give you quite the same high that it used to. Worse yet, your brain circuitry responds in ways that make you feel depressed, irritable, or stressed out – which only makes you want another hit in order to feel better.

At this point, things start to go awry in the parts of your brain that are responsible for deciding how important something is, making decisions, and initiating action. It becomes extremely difficult to resist strong urges. This explains why you find it so hard to avoid falling back into your addictive behavior, even when you've sworn you'll never do it again. Your brain cares about only one thing: satisfying that single, overwhelming craving.

If you’ve found yourself in this spiral, you know it’s a miserable place to be. But there is a way out. And here again, dopamine plays a role. The key is in those “ordinary pleasures” – also known as natural positive reinforcers.

Any event that increases the feeling of pleasure or reward, even a little, has the potential to increase dopamine release in the brain. Addiction turns down the volume on the reward you get from anything besides your drug of choice. But you can turn the volume back up by intentionally re-engaging with everyday pleasures and really savoring them. With practice, you can recalibrate your brain to once again get true satisfaction from ordinary pleasures.

How do you do this? The path is different for everyone. People find enjoyment in a variety of simple ways: spending time with family or friends, enjoying a cup of coffee, making art, using relaxation techniques like visualization, gardening, exercise or spending time in nature. These things just make you feel good.

Many people get special satisfaction from belonging to a group that gives them positive, uplifting input. This could include going to 12-step meetings, volunteering, or playing team sports. A supportive community and a sense of connection can go a long way toward lifting your spirits.

But the most profound satisfaction is found in nourishing the spirit. This may involve attending religious services, meditating, praying, or feeling reverence for the natural world. These experiences promote a sense of awe and transcendence. They give meaning to your life. As you become stronger in your recovery, you will begin to feel more like your true self.  When you awaken to who you truly are, you become able to see yourself – including your flaws and your mistakes – with compassion.  This is the beginning to waking up that part of yourself that feels connected to something greater than yourself.

Research shows that spiritual connection increases the release of dopamine in the brain, which can help reduce cravings and when combined with some type of spiritual belief or connection may promote dopamine release in the brain that could translate to a reduction in relapse risk. Spiritual connection doesn't have to mean going to church, it can be as simple as watching a sunset.  

To get started, choose a couple of practices or approaches that appeal to you – anything from walking your dog to cultivating a spiritual practice. Find and do something every day that makes you feel good, and savor your experiences. It takes time for your brain to recalibrate to the more subtle pleasures of daily life, so be patient.

When your addiction is your only source of pleasure, it takes on too much power and rules your life. It’s extremely difficult to overcome an addiction by just white-knuckling it. Willpower is a shaky foundation for recovery. But by exploring new ways to find enjoyment in life and renewing old ones, you can literally rewire your brain, strengthening the pathways of contentment and self-control.

As your mind clears and your body becomes stronger, you will notice that little by little, you will begin to feel joy again.  Recovering from an addiction is not just the result of stopping your behaviors, it's important to heal the brain.  Using natural positive reinforces can help you find do just that.