As a chronic disease, addiction never occurs in a vacuum. Instead, it affects your physical and mental health, so you can no longer function properly. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration states that over 9 million US adults suffer from a co-occurring disorder. Similarly, the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that people with an addiction have at least one associated health concern like a stroke, heart disease, or cancer. In this article, we’ll have an in-depth look at the science behind addiction, its psychological causes, and its effects on physical and mental health.
What are the Psychological Causes of Addiction?
Various psychological factors can result in someone developing a severe addiction to different substances. Factors such as peer pressure or an inability to deal with trauma can be some of the reasons why individuals develop an addiction.
Peer pressure is one of the main ways people are introduced to substance and alcohol abuse. To make matters worse, it puts them in situations where they cannot stop. According to a study in 2020, peer pressure was a major contributor to excessive alcohol consumption among individuals with greater sensitivity to rejection.
It can be challenging for some adults to distance themselves from peers that negatively influence them. Meanwhile, adolescents, whose brains have yet to mature fully, are more susceptible to peer pressure. Consequently, they’re more likely to experiment with drugs to ‘look cool’ or ‘fit in.’
Helps Cope with Traumatic Experiences
Another major reason why individuals struggle with addiction to alcohol and other substances is that it helps them cope with traumatic experiences. These traumatic experiences include physical/sexual abuse, neglect, physical injury, or bankruptcy. Many will start taking drugs to cope with the traumatic experience.
Such traumatic experiences can cause PTSD, which can lead to a number of anxiety-related symptoms whenever they face triggering stimuli. To alleviate the anxiety associated with a traumatic event, they may take alcohol or substances that ‘quiet the intrusive thoughts.’ It is also possible that these individuals struggling with addiction learned to cope using illicit substances from influential figures.
Self-medication isn’t just a way for people to deal with trauma but several mental health issues. One of the most common reasons individuals use alcohol or substances to self-medicate is because they struggle with anxiety or depression.
Alcohol is especially dangerous since the initial high can trigger the brain’s pleasure centers and slow down the nervous system. The most serious consequence of a slow nervous system is that it fails to produce the necessary neurotransmitters that regulate mood and feelings of anxiety. Consequently, people may fall into a vicious cycle where they consume alcohol to reduce anxiety, but their anxious thoughts only grow more intense when the effect wears off.
Stress can be a major contributor to developing an addiction. According to an in-depth study on the relationship between stress and drugs, people suffering from chronic stress are likely to develop addictions and relapse while trying to recover.
How Do Drugs Affect Behavior and Mental Processes?
Drugs in the body can bind to various parts of the brain or overwhelm it with neurotransmitters, which cause the high. Some drugs can slow down the nervous system, whereas others can make it function faster. The principle remains the same because all substances stimulate the brain’s pleasure centers. Here’s an in-depth look at the science of addiction and why people continue to take drugs despite knowing that it’s a downward spiral.
Science of Addiction
A surge of neurotransmitters can rush to the brain’s reward circuit, the basal ganglia, creating feelings of euphoria. The same reward system is involved in other pleasurable activities, such as eating, sexual intercourse, or socializing.
While that initial euphoric burst results from a rush of endorphins, reinforcement occurs through dopamine. For many years, the scientific community believed that dopamine was responsible for the pleasurable feeling associated with drugs. However, the truth is that dopamine encourages the brain to repeat pleasurable activities.
Dopamine rewires the brain and improves neural connectivity, making it easier to repeat the activity. This is how habits are formed, so when drugs cause a surge of dopamine, it reinforces drug-seeking behavior. That’s because your brain develops a connection between the consumption of the drug and the pleasurable feeling.
If people try to abstain from the substance causing the addiction, they will have uncontrollable cravings. Common triggers for these urges include places that remind them of pleasurable experiences involving substance abuse.
Behavioral Problems Resulting from Drugs
Along with a significant change in the individual’s neural activity, addiction can cause profound behavioral changes. Some can be short-term, which individuals will quell by taking their preferred substance. However, other behavioral changes can develop over the long term, making a recovery more challenging. These can include:
- Impaired judgment
- Lack of self-control
According to Bureau of Justice Statistics reports, almost 8% of violent crime inmates say they committed crimes to get money for drugs.
How Do Alcohol and Drugs Affect Mental Health?
Because of their effect on the mind, alcohol and other substances can adversely affect your mental health. In fact, it’s one of the main reasons various private luxury rehab offer mental health services to help speed up recovery.
Significantly Increased Anxiety
Illicit substances can affect natural processes in the brain, which can even induce anxiety as the high wears off. Alcohol is a depressant drug, so it stimulates the brain to produce GABA and glutamate. Both of these receptors are responsible for helping the brain calm down and reduce anxiety.
However, when the effect wears off, anxiety can significantly increase, compelling you to drink more. Of course, the specific effect of a substance in relation to anxiety is different. For instance, stimulants like cocaine can induce anxiety during withdrawal, while hallucinogens like mushrooms can induce anxiety during the high.
Illicit substances like ice (methamphetamines) and cocaine can increase aggression in individuals. Whether or not you’ll display increased aggression after drug use depends on the specific substance. Nevertheless, studies find that individuals are more than likely to display aggressive behavior after consuming drugs like methamphetamines. Meanwhile, alcohol can lead to poor impulse control, which may result in violent behavior.
Entering a State of Psychosis
The effect of drug addiction, specifically in the case of psychedelics, includes entering a state of psychosis or having a psychotic episode. Therefore, delusions and hallucinations can be very common, and they can occur during the high or withdrawal. For instance, withdrawal from and consumption of cocaine can induce hallucinations, whereas LSD and amphetamines can induce severe delusions.
How Does Substance Abuse Affect Physical Health
The severity of substance abuse extends far beyond mental health and can even have very serious physical consequences as well. In cases of chronic addiction, the effects on your physical health can be irreversible, leaving you with permanent damage to organs such as the liver, heart, or even your teeth.
Increased Strain on the Liver
Substances like alcohol can put a serious strain on your liver, as drinking can cause inflammation in the liver. Regular inflammation of the liver can also lead to hepatitis, as the buildup of scar tissue can permanently affect liver functions. Drug-induced liver injury can also be very severe since it has no outward symptoms.
Poor Cardiovascular Health
Repeated alcohol and substance use can have detrimental effects on the heart, such as abnormal changes in your heartbeat, low oxygen levels in the blood, and poor blood supply to the heart. Chronic addiction can damage the heart valves, cause congestive heart failure, and even a stroke. People who regularly take stimulants such as cocaine and nicotine find that it causes abnormally high blood pressure.
Poor Oral Health
Addiction can increase cravings for empty calories like highly-processed foods with high sugar content. This can increase your chances of tooth decay, gum disease, and consequential tooth loss. Moreover, many alcoholic beverages have a high sugar content, which can lead to cavities. Other oral health concerns that occur due to addiction include delayed healing, gum recession, and palatal perforations.
The effects of drug abuse on society are well documented. It can lead to mental health concerns like mood and anxiety disorders and physical health issues like heart disease and liver inflammation. Nevertheless, it’s still possible to treat the physical and mental health issues that come with addiction. But for a successful recovery, it’s crucial that you first cut back on your alcohol and drug abuse habits. For that, you need to see an addiction specialist at a rehab center, where they’ll design a personalized treatment program that meets your specific needs.