Addiction is a complicated disease. When you engage in an unnaturally pleasurable activity (like taking recreational drugs), your brain is flooded with abnormally high levels of dopamine. Over time, your brain creates shortcuts that link this surge in pleasure to the stimuli connected with the activity, and you begin to compulsively engage in behaviors that allow you to re-experience those feelings. To make matters even more complicated, your brain builds a tolerance to the dopamine over time, so you need to take more extreme measures to experience the same high-if you even experience it at all.
American Addiction Centers and other organizations have dedicated themselves to facilitating healthy-and hopefully permanent-addiction recovery, but it’s not easy to rewire the brain. With careful treatment, it’s possible to mitigate the effects of addiction, but between 40 and 60 percent of addicts who seek treatment eventually relapse.
Now, a new study suggests relapse isn’t just a failure of self-discipline, nor is it triggered by especially powerful events. Instead, even mild stress triggers could influence a significant relapse.
The Latest Study
In the latest study from Brown University, researchers found that even small incidents of stress could trigger the release of a protein known as dynorphin, which activates kappa opioid receptors (kORs) in the brain. kORs are thought to be a significant influencer in addiction development and persistence, and are the target of research in the neuroscience of addiction treatment and recovery. When stress events activate kORs in cocaine-addicted rats, the signals can persist for days.
Assuming this effect applies to humans as well, this research suggests that even a small stressful event, such as a difficult day on the job or an argument with a loved one, could be enough to trigger several days’ worth of increased addictive urges.
Fortunately, researchers are already investigating ways to control, and possibly stop this action. In previous studies, scientists have shown that a chemical called norBNI could potentially restore kORs to their previous functionality, reducing the signaling that is thought to trigger addictive urges and relapse. norBNI is not an ideal solution for humans, however, because its effects could last for weeks and produce unpleasant side effects. Still, an alternative to norBNI could help humans with the same neural correction.
Current Strategies to Prevent Relapse
Scientists are attempting to understand these processes well enough to produce a drug that can ease addiction recovery and prevent relapse. However, there’s still a long way to go. For now, these are some of the best ways that recovering addicts can prevent relapse:
- Avoid unnecessary stress. As this study shows, even small levels of stress can influence a relapse. Do what you can to avoid stressful or tempting situations, and when you do encounter them, try to healthily manage that stress. Exercise regularly, meditate, and step away from situations that are causing you excessive stress before they reach unmanageable levels.
- Cultivate a network of support. Your greatest assets in addiction recovery will be your friends, family, and loved ones. The more people you have to rely on, the more support, assistance, and comfort you’re going to receive. Don’t be afraid to ask for help; you’re likely to get it.
- Stick to a schedule. As much as you can, try to develop a routine and stick to it. The more consistent you are in your work and personal habits, the less room there will be for a relapse to occur.
- Don’t get too comfortable. A relapse can happen at any time, even years after your original addiction. If you start getting too comfortable with the idea that you’ve “beaten” your addiction, you might drop your guard, and become more vulnerable to tempting situations. Instead, be aware that relapse may be a possibility for the indefinite future, and avoid it at all costs.
This new study shows that relapse may be triggered by even slight events, highlighting just how difficult it is to fully recover from a deep-seated addiction, but the more we understand about the neuroscience of addiction, the closer we come to a reliable way to completely recover. Until we have a relapse prevention drug, use these strategies to help yourself and your loved ones overcome the urges to reengage in recreational substances.