Relapsing of the Brain

A difficult road to recovery lies ahead for those struggling with addiction

The Body’s Continuous Struggle to Stay Clean

When diseases such as addiction aggressively attack the brain and disorient brain chemistry, it can be difficult for those going through this change to stay clean.  Relapse is described as the recurrence of any disease that has gone into remission or recovery.  This often happens multiple times, especially when someone has been using drugs for a longer period of time.  Relapse does not happen suddenly but is more of an emotional, mental and physical break down.  

Relapse is a tough and agonizing process.  Some experience compulsive behavior, mood swings, returning to unhealthy behaviors and environments and isolation.  Even the thought of breaking sobriety can cause those recovering to relapse.  Recovery becomes a lifelong process that requires self-care every day in order to make the right choice.  

In the first stage of emotional relapse, people are feeling a rollercoaster of emotions which can range from depression to euphoria, since the first step of withdrawal is the most difficult.  The next stage is mental relapse, which means that the person who is trying to stay clean is having a war in their brain.  One part is telling them to use the substance again to feel better, but the other part is working twice as hard to keep them on the path to recovery.  This makes it even more difficult to resist drugs and alcohol since the brain is undergoing another massive change.  Physical relapse is the last stage and is the most arduous.  This is when there is almost a 100 percent chance of slipping back into old, unhealthy behaviors.  Once this happens, the body is shocked into repeating these old behaviors and it becomes a lot harder to return back to being sober, but it’s not impossible to achieve sobriety again.

“Medication assisted treatment has been phenomenally helpful.  Instead of taking them off drugs completely and making them pray and talk about the twelve steps and go to AA, they actually supplant and realize that addiction is a disease that hijacks certain chemicals and too many doctors prescribe two medications methadone and suboxone which replace the opiate in your brain but in a controlled way that doesn’t really get you high and makes it so that you can function in society. And the overdose rates are far drastically lower with this medication assisted treatment and people go back to work and they go back to their families and they function,” Primary care physician and professor of medicine at Harvard University, Dr. Peter Grinspoon said.  

Temple University Associate professor of Pharmacology and Center for Substance Abuse Research, Dr. Scott Rawls, has been researching ways to combat relapse due to these powerful substances.  He praises suboxone which, if used in conjunction with therapy, can have a long lasting effect on those trying to leave drugs behind.

It’s a proven fact that suboxone will reduce relapse rates to heroin which is a good thing.  But it’s also a proven fact that once those patients are on suboxone they have a hard time stopping and taking the actual suboxone itself.  So I think the goal is to find non opioid medications that are useful in reducing relapse,” Rawls said.  

Written by: Casey Semenza 

There are three stages of relapse that can lead to negative long term effects if not treated. Created by: Casey Semenza

The brain creates less of its own dopamine over time due to an artificial pleasure from substances. Created by: Jessica Ferrarelli