How Dopamine Affects the Relapse Trigger

How Dopamine Affects the Relapse TriggerDopamine is one of several neurotransmitters that are produced in your brain and nervous system to respond to and regulate pleasurable stimuli. Dopamine’s role in drug addiction and alcoholism is prominent, including the risk of relapse.

Man’s dopamine reward system is an evolutionary vestige that developed prior to man’s ability to use logic and reason. Scientists believe that dopamine level increases occurred in response to activities that benefitted early man. Eating nutritional foods or participating in procreation signaled to him that he should continue those activities for survival. Dopamine works within the brain’s reward center, ultimately communicating with the midbrain. The midbrain dictates the totem pole of survival needs like food, sleep, and reproduction. Eventually, using drugs and alcohol climbs to the top of this priority list.

In the context of modern man’s struggles with addiction, the dopamine reward system works against an addict’s greater benefit. Cravings and symptoms of withdrawal act as strong signals to continue using drugs or alcohol. As a result, the cycle is perpetuated. Drugs and alcohol stimulate the production of dopamine, rewarding the brain with pleasure, leaving the body in need of more.

The psychological need for more can remain for months or years after the physical and chemical dependency has been healed. For many young people in recovery, it is the psychological desire to use that leads to the physical cravings. Euphoric recall, for example, can prematurely trigger the production of dopamine in the brain. Essentially, this process convinces the brain it has already consumed drugs or alcohol. Consequently, the brain turns on symptoms of withdrawal, desperately wanting to feel that pleasure once more.  

Relapse typically occurs in response to stressful triggers. Remaining acutely aware of the fact that dopamines play a role in increasing their relapse risk is a mindful tool for recovery. Part of the recovery process is learning to recognize and manage triggering situations. Alcohol and drugs are no longer the solution to uncomfortable situations, thoughts, emotions, and experiences.    


Sustain Recovery Services in southern California offers extended care services to young adults and adolescents in the early stages of recovery from drug addiction and alcoholism. Our unique structured program takes place in our luxurious homes. Each day our clients are educated on how the disease of addiction works in the mind, learning practical life skills to help them manage day to day activities. Please see our website or call us at 949-407-9052 for more information.