Addiction is both a physical and psychological disease. While many people mistakenly believe that the physical aspect of the disease is more powerful, it is actually the psychological side of addiction that causes more relapses. Learning how the addicted brain works can empower a recovering addict to avoid relapse.
How Psychological Addiction Works
The euphoric high felt during drug or alcohol abuse directly affects an area of the brain called the pleasure or reward center. This is the same part of the brain that manages a variety of important psychological functions such as the following:
- Emotional response
- Anxiety management
- Coping with stress
- Reinforcing behaviors (forming habits)
- The ability to resist impulses
- The formation and recollection of memories
Drugs and alcohol provide real, albeit temporary, relief of emotional pain or distress in this part of the brain. When the substance wears off and the underlying psychological disorder begins to take over, the brain will use every psychological tool at its disposal to get those chemicals again. One of the most problematic of these symptoms – especially after months of recovery – is a phenomenon called euphoric recall.
How Euphoric Recall Works
Because the formation and recollection of memories are managed in this same area, the brain may choose only to bring to mind the fun times or highlights of past drug use. The user will not remember the pain, sickness, destruction, disappointment, or trapped feelings of addiction – only the good times. This can lead a person to romanticize their previous substance abuse and spend too much time thinking back on it longingly. This type of distorted memory can also lead people to feel overconfident in their ability to resist relapse, which may cause them to place themselves in high-risk environments. A recovering alcoholic, when walking past a bar, may think back to some fun times and then tell himself that he can handle the temptation to drink now. He goes into the bar where the positive memories collide with his weakened state of alertness; before he knows it, he has relapsed.
How to Stop Euphoric Recall
While you cannot stop euphoric recall, one of the most powerful tools to overcome it is through relational accountability. Make sure you have a friend or sponsor who you have especially empowered to hold you accountable for your time, words, money, and actions. Another person can provide the accurate perspective that euphoric recall destroys. You may start to become nostalgic for your party days, but a good accountability partner will remind you of the broken relationships, the misery of withdrawal, and the positive aspects of being clean and sober. Journaling can also be extremely helpful – especially as it relates to identifying faulty or incomplete memories and filling in those gaps during weak moments. In time you can train your mind to remember all aspects of the disease of addiction, not just the distorted ones.