Drugs as serious as cocaine and heroin addict no more than 20% of all users who try them; most are able to choose to use only when they want to, and are able to stay away for months when it isn’t convenient. To the 20% who do fall prey to addiction, though, exposure to drugs brings about serious changes to the brain that can never be undone. With these brain-altering changes in place, they tend to lose all control over their relationship with drugs.

Why does this happen?

People who tend to become addicted to substance abuse often suffer from multiple genetic flaws that make them extremely vulnerable to the effects of addictive substances. They tend to have low levels of the brain neurotransmitter dopamine, for instance, an essential ingredient feelings of basic well-being. Feeling little of the joy or contentment that most people take for granted, the draw of drug use, to them, can often be irresistible.

While the specific mode of action of addictive substances tends to vary from one recreational drug to the next, enhancement of the brain’s exposure to dopamine is always part of the equation. When people who suffer from low dopamine levels come across drugs, they tend to feel “right” for the first time. They tend to find it far more tempting to continue use than people with normal dopamine endowment.

What happens when a person continues with drug use? 

Excessive exposure to dopamine can be extremely harmful. To begin, such exposure can kill off the brain’s dopamine receptors. With fewer receptors than ever before, they can become truly dependent on drug use for any happiness at all.

Dopamine exposure also has the effect of physiologically changing the brain: drugs act on the brain’s limbic system, a region responsible for the creation of instinct, and deeply established habit. Once formed, such instinct can be impossible to address with logic.

Addiction, once formed, can only be managed through active involvement by the patient and his family, often for life.

Detox doesn’t do much 

Since US law tends to be lax in its oversight of the rehab industry, most rehab centers tend to offer very little actual care. Addicts often receive detox, and not much more.

Those who attempt to quit drugs with detox alone tend to relapse at an alarming rate — more than two-thirds of all recovering addicts within the first year. The bulk of the work of addressing addiction is done through the therapy that follows detox. Delivered by highly trained therapists at centers such as ARC, cognitive-behavioral therapy is one of the most critical therapeutic processes involved.

What is CBT? 

Addiction is a complex health condition — no one cause can adequately explain it. While genetics do have an important role to play, a number of other factors are involved, as well. Most addicts tend to suffer from serious mental disorders, for instance. With a background of poor mental function, they tend to have be ill-equipped for self-control, the ability to delay gratification, resist peer pressure, muster motivation or even understand the consequences of their actions.

CBT helps by offering patients sensitive and supportive psychological training in addressing each one of these challenges through cleverly designed sessions in analysis and therapeutic practice.

The techniques of CBT 

The processes by which addiction comes about tend to be different for each person. It requires a sensitive and committed therapist to uncover the reasons behind each addiction, and offer CBT specifically aimed at them.

Visualization techniques: Often, when people relapse after detox, it is for a simple reason: they find it impossible to understand how just giving in once to their cravings could possibly do much harm. The inability to look into the obvious results of an action is a mental limitation.

Visualization techniques help patients internalize the chain of events that can occur when one uses drugs even once. Patients are made to vividly imagine what happens when they take a drug: they will end up feeling guilty after the pleasure wears off, and feel powerful surges of cravings again. They could end up taking another hit, and end up failing at a drug test. They could lose their jobs, and their family. Repeated visualization can help burn into the brain the fact that drugs are dangerous even when used once.

Mindfulness therapy: Mindfulness therapy involves the use of deep focus on thoughts as they form, and feelings as they materialize. The aim of the exercise is to help addicts learn to think about their feelings, rather than simply react to them, a difficult act of self-control for recovering addicts used to lives of hedonism.

Delayed gratification therapy: To addicts battling mental disorders, the draw of instant joy through drug use tends to be irresistible. They often give in simply because they are unable to understand the harm of instant gratification. Gratification therapy involves helping patients take baby steps into progressively delaying gratification in increments. 

There is so much that can be done 

Addiction, a habit, can only be adequately addressed through the formation of healthy counter-habit. CBT helps address the challenge one step at a time. It is scientifically proven to be effective with addictions. CBT is only effective, though, when it is delivered by a compassionate and highly experienced therapist.

Joanie Fellows has worked in adult mental health for a number of years and likes to share her thoughts and insights online. She has previously written for a number of mental health websites.

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One Comment

  1. Roy Trevelion says:

    Not really a help. Too much black and white thinking. A wee bit catastrophic, perhaps. Us and them thinking, as in ‘Gratification therapy involves helping patients take baby steps into progressively delaying gratification in increments.’ Baby steps?

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