Recent studies show that those struggling with a cocaine addiction will experience intense cravings when exposed to drug-related words. As cocaine dependence develops, neurological changes happen in the brain. An addict’s central nervous system (CNS) is literally getting rewired. These changes in the brain are the culprits responsible for propagating cocaine abuse.
So, let’s take a look at how this works.
Studies show that the mesencephalon brain region gets activated when cocaine users are exposed to drug-related words. The words act as a type of stimuli. When addicts hear the words, the mesencephalon releases dopamine into the brain. Dopamine is a ‘feel good’ chemical that makes the brain associate what it’s hearing with positive experiences. The same results were not achieved when drug users were exposed to neutral words.
This study shows exactly why it’s so difficult to get sober. Even after seeking cocaine addiction treatment, just one word can have an addict craving the drug again. This is why aftercare planning is such an important part of an effective treatment program. Addicts must learn how to manage their cravings to avoid relapses. Behavioral therapy, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), as well as pharmacological therapy, at the treatment center can help manage cravings.
Cocaine Addiction and Cravings
Each addict experiences cravings in different ways. It’s a form of physical dependence and psychological dependence to the drug. In general, the cravings can be categorized as three different types. Some cocaine users experience all three types when craving the drug.
Some cocaine users will experience flashback euphoria. They feel as if they’ve used cocaine when they actually haven’t. They may even hallucinate, and see drugs in front of them. These feelings remind them of just how wonderful they felt when they were using drugs.
Others will experience physical anguish. Symptoms of physical anguish will also differ among addicts. Some describe it as “muscle pain and joint aches” whereas others describe it as a “sense of queasiness.” The physical symptoms can also include heart palpitations, an increase in blood pressure and heart rate, profuse sweating and shortness of breath. Mood swings are also quite common.
A drug dream is also another common type of craving. Basically, cocaine users will dream that they’ve used the drugs. These dreams are fairly vivid and feel extremely real. Addicts claim that they can smell, taste and feel the drugs.
What Changes Are Seen in the Brain of Someone with a Cocaine Addiction?
When exposed to drug-related words, the mesencephalon, which is a fancy name for a certain part of the brain stem, increases dopamine cell firing. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter responsible for creating feelings of euphoria. It’s also a stimuli that’s connected to your brain’s reward system. When dopamine is released, your body feels good. As a result, it associated dopamine release with a positive situation. The brain will crave the influx of dopamine. Since dopamine is released when drug addicts are exposed to drug-related words, it basically associated the drug-related words with good experiences. This causes cocaine users to develop intense cravings. Many previous studies have already determined that dopamine conditions the body and brain.
Scientists were able to track the release of dopamine in the mesencephalon with neuroimaging. When scientists scanned the brain, dopamine molecules would light up on the screen. Scientists could, then, deduce which parts of the brain were responsible for the release of dopamine based on where they saw clusters of bright colors.
The brain scans lit up like Christmas lights in those struggling with cocaine abuse and addiction. Among those who did not have struggle with any form of drug abuses, the brain scans remained dark. This shows a link between drug-related words and dopamine release in the brain. Since we already know that dopamine conditions the brain and body, we know that drug-related words can induce intense cravings.
Words are not the only type of stimuli tested. The scientists also looked at how the brain responded to photographs, images of the words and even short videos. In all these situation, the brain scans lit up, just like when it was exposed to drug-related words.
Does This Study Relate to Other Forms of Substance Abuse?
Similar results have also been witnessed in other studies. For example, those struggling with an addiction to heroin or prescription drugs face the same obstacle. The addiction rewires the way that the brain motivates itself. The goal of treatment is to reset the brain. Some changes can take years to reset; however, in most cases, the brain will start to heal and reset itself after 90 days.
Substance abuse and mental health problems often come hand-in-hand because of this reason. When the brain rewires itself, it worsens mental illnesses. This is why some of the most obvious signs and symptoms of addiction concern changes to the person’s behavior.
Ways to Manage Cocaine Cravings
Cocaine cravings can be incredibly intense and strong. The profound changes in the brain make relapse highly likely. Teaching patients how to deal with the cravings is an important part of substance abuse treatment. It’s an important part of contingency management and relapse prevention for any type of drug or alcohol abuse. Behavioral therapy and counselling can help patients find out what works for them. With that said, here are several different tactics to try:
- Keep busy by picking up a hobby or reading
- Distracting oneself by going on a run or watching a movie
- Eating healthy diets
- Learning how to manage stress
- Discussing the feelings with others, like in a 12-Step program
Medication can also help manage the cravings. Those who are interested in taking medications will need to speak with a medical specialist for more information.