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How Drug Memories are Connected with Relapse and New Ways to Prevent It

How Drug Memories are Connected with Relapse and New Ways to Prevent It

Drug memories are consistently considered to be a major contributing factor to relapse in many addiction sufferers. Sometimes a vivid, flashbulb memory of a certain experience while high is all it takes to undo weeks, months, and even years of sobriety. That’s why focusing on how addiction sufferers cope with such memories is such a crucial aspect of any successful treatment program. And while this field has been predominantly composed of behavioral maintenance and counseling, there are a variety of options currently in the works that may make it possible to eradicate drug experiences from your memory entirely.

Memory and Addiction: A Complex Relationship

One of the aspects addiction that makes it so hard to overcome is the fact that it is a multi-faceted disorder that doesn’t just affect individuals physically; it also can alter emotions, psychology, and even the way we create memories. The complexity of addiction depends in part on several different ways it affects a single chemical in the brain: dopamine. As you may have heard before, dopamine is integral when it comes to how your mind manages pleasure, among other things. Whether its pleasure that comes from taking a walk in the park, having a scrumptious dinner, or getting a promotion at work, the warm fuzzy feelings you get from all of these is thanks to the brain’s release of dopamine. A small area named the nucleus accumbens, or “the pleasure center”, is responsible for spreading this chemical throughout your synapses. Most drugs take hold of the brain by causing it to produce an enormous amount of dopamine, sometimes as much as two to ten times the normal amount in fact. Beyond the pleasure-inducing effects of dopamine surges, though, is the fact that the chemical also affects the memory creation process as well, not just the reward aspect of your mind. You see, our brains are hardwired to seek out experiences that result in bursts of dopamine. In addition to how great bursts of this chemical feel, we also have a specific region in the brain called the hippocampus that commits certain acts to memory depending on how much dopamine we produce while performing them. The more dopamine that results from a certain action, the more likely we are to seek it out in the future to produce those same feelings. Every instance you’ve used a drug that creates this burst of dopamine is one more training session that’s rewired your brain to automatically seek out the same behavior later.  What’s more, since the behavior is associated with such a disproportionate level of dopamine, the cravings to reproduce these feelings again are stronger and less controllable than most other desires. These cravings are even further supplemented by our brain’s natural processes through the creation of “triggers”. For an addict, these memories are typically vivid recollections of certain aspects of situations where they had used before. These memories could be almost anything: from bar scenes and specific people to movies and even smells. What has happened here is that the memory center has paired this particular environmental aspect very intensely with the experience of using.

New Research in the Field of Memory and Addiction

As with most aspects of the mind, the more research is conducted on how memory really works, the more we start to realize this process more complex than we first realized. For instance, a recent study examining the methods of memory creation when related to methamphetamine use showed that such memories could be effectively blocked altogether by preventing the uptake of F-actin, a neurotransmitter in the brain. The experiment also showed that while the memories related to methamphetamine were inhibited, other memories like those relating to foot shock and rewards in mice still remained intact. Although the experiment only accounted for memories that haven’t yet been consolidated, this research points to an incredibly specific mechanism that is apparently responsible for encoding memories related primarily to drug use. Once more research is done on the topic and methods are perfected, this could result in a way of treating addiction that physically conquers relapse-incurring triggers.

A Closer Look at Relapse and How to Prevent It

Just like addiction itself, relapse is also a complex system that incorporates more than just the physical aspects of dependency. In fact, relapse can be broken down into three distinct stages: emotional, psychological, and physical. The emotional stage will typically involve the immediate desire for the drug after being exposed to triggers or when dealing with overwhelming life events and stress. The psychological stage comes next and will normally entail bargaining and justification for using “just one more time”. The physical stage is last and occurs when the individual actually begins using again. While relapse is certainly meant to be avoided, it’s worth remembering that someone suffering from a substance use disorder has a physically different brain than others. As such, most people’s recovery process is accompanied by instances where they will slip up and use again. What’s important though is to not give up on treatment. Start going back to meetings. Ask for help. Sign up for more counseling. The key is persistence and dedication. One of the best ways to prevent relapsing is by creating a relapse plan. Part of that plan should be to know your triggers. By identifying your triggers before you encounter them you can either prepare for facing them or learn to avoid them altogether. You should also be especially aware of your body during recovery as being distracted by certain physical feelings might make it harder to focus on controlling your cravings. You should also spend time building up a support network. It could be a sponsor, a sober friend or family member, or even an online support group. The point here is to get the encouragement you need to keep from using again and the motivation required to pick yourself back up if you relapse.


Overcoming your cravings and triggers can be particularly difficult during the rehabilitation process. But if you know yourself and have a strong network of support behind you, you’ll be better equipped to overcome any obstacle.