The brain reacts to addictive drugs. The reason these drugs are so dangerous is because a percentage of people who take them can’t stop.
That doesn’t mean all people who take them can’t stop – as most studies and statistics will tell you, the number of people who have used or are using addictive drugs heavily outweighs the number of people who are considered to have a substance use disorder.
What exactly does that mean? And how does a person break away from that?
The basis of drug addiction treatment is to unravel these two questions, to figure out what happens when a person goes from using drugs to not being able to stop, and to figure out what needs to happen in order to help them stop.
How Addiction Affects the Brain
While we haven’t completely solved addiction, and there’s plenty left to research and verify, we do understand more about it today than ever – and a big part of treating an addiction is understanding a person’s mental state as a whole.
There’s often more to the story than just the one substance use disorder. Physical conditions, mental disorders, financial or social circumstances, genetics, lifestyle – these are just some factors that influence both drug use and drug use disorders.
When a person uses an addictive drug, it leaves an impression on the brain. The brain often reacts in a way that shows the drug left a significant impact, subtly changing to want more of that experience.
This is because addictive drugs interact directly with portions of the brain that are linked to reward and motivation, tapping into what makes us want to do the things we do, and feel pleasure as a result of them.
Heavy use can lead to dependence, wherein a person simply cannot stop using drugs anymore due to extreme withdrawal symptoms, cravings, and mood and personality changes. There is no proper timeline for when this begins.
Some people become addicted much faster than others. Some can use drugs and never become completely addicted, quitting when it’s no longer convenient to continue using. But for those stuck in the cycle of addiction, simply stopping isn’t a realistic answer.
To treat addiction, a holistic approach is required. Which is why so often, treatment begins in rehab – in a controlled environment where people can relearn how to live as sober individuals, develop their own unique interests and hobbies, and regain the tools necessary to tackle life’s basic challenges, from developing personal autonomy to finding work, interacting with others, avoiding drug use, dealing with stress and cravings, and more.
In all cases, mental health plays a great big role. Even without a formal diagnosis, many people who are addicted are miserable. Some have a harder time overcoming that misery than others. Some struggle not only with the circumstances they are in, but with inherent conditions that amplify their struggles.
Mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia are more common among people with substance use disorders than in the average population. A healthy mental state is critical for sobriety, and that can mean treating several issues concurrently.
Mental Health and Addiction Often Go Hand in Hand
Mental health disorders and addiction affect each other, one making the other worse.
In some examples, people with mental health disorders are more likely to misuse and overuse addictive drugs as a way to self-medicate and soften their symptoms.
In other cases, an addiction can cause mental health problems to flare, particularly issues with anxiety, suicidal ideation, low mood, and more.
Regardless of whether the addiction or the mental health problems came first, both feed the other.
Similarly, 37 percent of people struggling with alcohol addiction and 53 percent of people struggling with drug addiction have at least one severe mental disorder. Some use several substances.
- Drug use makes mental disorders worse.
- Drug use can trigger mental disorders if the underlying risk factors exist.
- Mental disorders increase the risk of using and getting addicted to drugs.
How Drug Use Makes Mental Disorders Worse
When the brain is exposed to an addictive drug, it triggers a very positive and euphoric response. This is the high, which differs from drug to drug.
This is because addictive drugs mimic chemicals that we already have in our bodies, yet addictive drugs are far more powerful than what we produce naturally. As such, they overpower our own pleasures and thoughts.
People who become addicted no longer feel satisfied by hobbies and activities they used to enjoy, and struggle to think or focus. Drug use also affects the brain negatively, diminishing a person’s ability to recognize and quantify risk, make decisions, and follow through or be motivated.
Incidentally, many of the portions of the brain affected by heavy drug use also play a significant role in the development of anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, and other conditions. As drug use worsens, so do the symptoms for these conditions.
People with depression struggle with lower moods as a result of drug use. People with anxiety become more anxious and can develop paranoia. In some cases, drug use leads to the development of psychosis, wherein you start to perceive sounds and visuals as real when they are, in fact, imagined.
Social factors are at play here as well. Addicts who know they have a problem understand how society feels about addiction, and often feel shame for what they have done. That shame, and the guilt of being unable to quit, drives them deeper into despair.
Mental Health is Critical to Treat Addiction
Simply treating one is not enough – in cases where addiction has gone hand-in-hand with other mental disorders, it’s critical to address both.
This can be done through professional therapy, through extended periods of stay at sober living homes, and through careful and planned medication, or alternative treatments.
Other protective factors include better physical health, newfound hobbies, supportive friends and family, and strong relationships with other recovering addicts.