Chronic Pain and Addiction Can Hijack Your Brain

Health Professional

Has your brain been hijacked?  Deep within your brain is a very primal brain that contains a circuit of pathways controlling your ability to feel rewarded.  This “reward pathway” is responsible for joyful feelings when you achieve a goal, when you soothe your child, and when you solve a problem.  Unfortunately, this pathway is hijacked when you experience chronic pain and/or addiction.

Both pain and addiction flood the system with too much dopamine, the main signal in the “reward system”.  As the pathways become saturated with too much dopamine, this circuitry is seized and the normal control mechanisms are lost.  Without the normal checks and balances in the reward pathway, a person will become less able to experience joy from the little things in life and more apt to act impulsively, compulsively and habitually.  In order to recover from this state of mind, two things need to occur: first, reduce exposure to anything that will continue the dopamine flood; and second, introduce regular exposure to small rewards.

Cigarettes, junk food and immediately-release opioids all flood the reward system with too much dopamine.  Avoiding the habitual use of these things will help the brain regain control of a system that has been hijacked.  In addition to reducing exposure to too much dopamine, the brain also benefits from small rewards that release manageable packages of dopamine.  These small packages of joy help the brain maintain the brakes on a reward system that can accelerate out of control.

Sources of daily joy and small rewards can be found in social situations like meeting with a friend.  You can also find problems to solve or small goals to achieve in order to get your daily, small doses of dopamine.  All the while, you are avoiding too much dopamine at once which tends to accelerate the brain into a state of being hijacked.

If you think your brain is hijacked, these are possible symptoms you might be feeling:

  • Avoidance of things you normally enjoy
  • Irritability to the point of harsh or controlling behavior
  • Constantly seeking pleasure or relief

Any one of these symptoms may mean that you need to regain control over your reward system by avoiding the habits that flood the system and retraining the brain with smaller packages of joy.

For an in depth discussion about addiction, the reward system and the process of being hijacked, I highly recommend an article written by Cynthia M. Kuhn Ph.D., and Wilkie A. Wilson Ph.D. called How Addiction Hijacks Our Reward System.

Other related articles:

Principles for Treating Pain and Addiction

Consequences of Long-Term Opioid Use

Sustained Release Versus Immediate Release Opioids