The Physical, Mental and Emotional Process of Addiction
To someone who has never experienced it before it can be difficult to understand how all-consuming a drug addiction or alcoholism can be. But while other diseases attack specific parts of the body or brain, addiction attacks nearly every aspect of human physiology and psychology all at once. The consequences of this condition are severe and include potentially fatal respiratory and cardiovascular conditions, precipitation of mental illness and a state of complete emotional disarray. Understanding this comprehensive nature of addiction and alcoholism is critical to developing a holistic treatment plan that addresses addiction on physiological, mental and emotional levels simultaneously.
Because substance abuse and drug addiction affects everyone differently, it can be difficult to say whether the physical, mental or emotional effects of addiction are observable in any particular order. However, it’s clear that the physiological aspects of addiction are not only the most dangerous but the most readily noticeable to the addict. This is important because in many cases the nature of the disease of addiction does not permit enough clarity of mind or emotion for the drug user to notice changes in either of these critical human attributes. Therefore, the physical signs of drug abuse are generally the first to be noticed by the addict, although this might not necessarily be the case for the people who interact with the user on a daily basis – they may see the emotional signs before the physical.
Anyone can become addicted to drugs because the physiological process is essentially the same for all humans. When drugs or alcohol are consumed they cause a release of a chemical substance in the brain known as dopamine. Dopamine is responsible for “good feelings” and the euphoric high that drugs produce. Any substance that causes dopamine to be produced can be addictive because over time the body will develop a tolerance to the drug. This is done to mitigate and reduce the effects of the foreign substance, but instead only causes users to consume more and more of the drug in order to achieve the same effect or “high.” Eventually, the neurological pathways that develop in the brain as a result will compel the addict to seek out and use drugs again and again despite even the severest of consequences. This is the true physical nature of the disease of addiction.
Casual drug use can be dangerous enough, but full-blown addiction carries with it significant health risks. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse:
- ALCOHOL consumption can damage the brain and most body organs. Areas of the brain that are especially vulnerable to alcohol-related damage are the cerebral cortex, the hippocampus, and the cerebellum.
- MARIJUANA increases heart rate, can harm the lungs, and can increase the risk of psychosis in those with an underlying vulnerability.
- INHALANTS are extremely toxic and can damage the heart, kidneys, lungs, and brain. Even a healthy person can suffer heart failure and death within minutes of a single session of prolonged sniffing of an inhalant.
- COCAINE abuse can lead to severe medical consequences related to the heart and the respiratory, nervous, and digestive systems
- METH effects are particularly long lasting and harmful to the brain. Amphetamines can cause high body temperature and can lead to serious heart problems and seizures.
- ECSTASY (MDMA) can increase body temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, and heart wall stress. Ecstasy may also be toxic to nerve cells.
- HEROIN slows respiration and its use is linked to an increased risk of serious infectious diseases, especially when taken intravenously. (1)
Other drugs like bath salts, prescription medications, LSD, steroids, synthetic marijuana and many others each pose a distinct set of health risks, often similar or even more severe than those listed above. However, many addicts simply ignore these physiological effects because they are also under the powerful mental and emotional effects of addiction that disallow any action to be taken that would alter the course of the disease.
The mental effects of addiction are devastating and are far more intense than even the strongest-willed person can manage. Once addiction sets in it becomes the single driving priority in the addict’s life and slowly erodes their ability to make wise decisions, concentrate on tasks, remember events, assess their own physical or emotional state, communicate to others and maintain a sense of self- and familial-preservation. In fact, some people would even argue that the disease of addiction uses the sufferer’s own intellect against them by fabricating rationales for continued drug use and making room for justifications that allow this even in the face of life-altering or potentially fatal consequences. This leads to thought patterns that affect an addict’s mental state including:
- Believing others are responsible and can fix you – like the drug
- Denying reality – convincing oneself and maybe others that it’s not as bad as it is
- Obsessive – exclusive focus on the substance and getting enough of it
- Grandiosity – thinking your concerns are more important than anything else
- If only – focusing on everything but the real thing that needs changing
- Self-harm – ideas about ways to relieve or escape the suffering
- Mental ability – loss of memory and concentration (2)
However, this is where an important distinction should be made. Addiction isn’t just about mental willpower – meaning that by the time a person is physically and psychologically addicted to a drug, they literally no longer have the mental capacity to stop using on their own. In fact, as the production of dopamine is stimulated in the brain neurological pathways develop that service the addictive behavior of drug use and subsequent reward. This pathway is physical and it is permanent. It causes substantial changes in the addict’s mental state to the point that drug use becomes one of the only things that motivates them. Eventually this will have a destabilizing effect on the addict’s emotional state. This is explained by the National Institute on Drug Abuse:
“Just as we turn down the volume on a radio that is too loud, the brain adjusts to the overwhelming surges in dopamine (and other neurotransmitters) by producing less dopamine or by reducing the number of receptors that can receive signals. As a result, dopamine’s impact on the reward circuit of a drug abuser’s brain can become abnormally low, and the ability to experience any pleasure is reduced.” (3)
Unfortunately, many of the emotional issues associated with substance abuse, drug addiction and alcoholism can also be attributed to co-occurring conditions. This includes conditions that cause serious emotional imbalances such as bipolar disorder, depression, mania, multiple personality disorder and many others. Both addiction and co-occurring conditions present their own unique set of emotional challenges that can be nearly insurmountable for addicts. Nora D. Volkow, the director of NIDA, wrote on the organization’s website that:
“As many as 6 in 10 substance abusers also have at least one other mental disorder.” (4)
But despite the fact that addiction affects so many different aspects of what makes us human, effective drug addiction treatment is available that addresses all of these levels simultaneously. This includes the use of evidence based practices, reality-based therapies and individualized treatment programs. To speak confidentially to an intake specialist about how one of these programs can help to make you whole physically, mentally and emotionally, call the number at the top of your screen right now.
(1) National Institute on Drug Abuse Addiction and Health
(2) Marsden, John Ph.D. Psychological Effects of Addiction BBC Health
(3) National Institute on Drug Abuse Drugs and the Brain
(4) Nora D. Volkow, M.D. Addiction and Co-Occurring Mental Disorders National Institute on Drug Abuse