Adolescence is the time to explore the world and your place in it – but you’ve gotta take your smarts with you! Understand how addiction happens, why everyone is vulnerable, and how to avoid it happening to you. (And no – this isn’t a preachy, boring lecture. Promise.)
- During adolescence, your brain is changing to give you the brain power you need to learn, experience, explore, and to set you up for the transition from childhood to adulthood.
- During this time, your brain is really vulnerable to changing according to the experiences you expose it to – for better or worse.
- Think of this like a bridge that is half-built. If that traffic starts to cross it before it’s finished, the bridge will be devastated. When that bridge is built, it will be more able to handle the pressure from heavy traffic in all sorts of conditions. During adolescence, your brain is like a partially built bridge. It’s brilliant, and it’s hungry, and it’s looking to grow and thrive. It’s a really exciting time for you. But you need to be careful with the experiences you expose it to.
- One of the things your brain is really vulnerable to is addiction, and part of this is because of a chemical in your brain called dopamine. Dopamine is released when we get something we want. This is to actually make us keep doing the things that are good for us. So when we eat, fall in love, exercise, try something new or unfamiliar, succeed at a challenge – these are experiences that release dopamine. When dopamine is released in the brain, it feels really good – good enough for the brain to chase more of whatever it was that triggered the release.
- During adolescence the levels of dopamine in your brain are actually lower than they are in adults – but – when it’s released, as in when you get something you want, that dopamine is released at a higher rate than it would be in an adult. So you can see how this is going to work. Lower dopamine can cause you to feel flatter or more indifferent, but when you get something you want, it feels so good.
- Whether or not something is addictive depends on the speed of the release of dopamine, the consistency it’s released in response to that experience, and the amount released. More synthetic experiences, such as illicit drugs, hit all three.
- Because your brain is so open to changing according to the experiences you expose it to, you’re more vulnerable to addiction during adolescence than at any other time.
- There’s something else that increases the risk of addiction during adolescence, and it’s the tendency for the adolescent brain to pay more attention to the positives of a situation, than the negatives. This is to support you in being brave enough to try new things, learn new skills, and experiment with your growing independence, but it can also bring you unstuck.
- Nobody ever starts doing things that are addictive in a bad way, thinking that it will only happen once, and thinking they will never get addicted. It just happens along the way, and it happens before you know it – and you are particularly vulnerable during adolescence because your brain is so hungry for the feel-good rush that comes from these things.
- The part of your brain that is able to plan and consider consequences doesn’t switch on as automatically as it would at other stages of your life. Again, this isn’t a bad thing – it happens this way to encourage you to do brave things, and to try new things. What this means is that to make strong, healthy decisions it will help to step back and take a moment to think about the consequences. This in itself will activate the part of your brain that is more able to see around corners and consider consequences.
- The risk in not doing this if you’re confronted with a risky decision, is that your brain will love the dopamine hit so much, it will just keep chasing it.
- Nobody wants to stop you from doing brave things and trying new, challenging things, but it’s really important that you have your wits about you, and that you’re smart about the decisions you make. It’s an exciting time for you, but you need to be really smart about the decisions you make.