Substance Abuse and Emotional Disorders Part I

Substance abuse and emotional disorders often occur simultaneously, and each can significantly exacerbate the other. In fact, many health care professionals believe that it is possible that one condition can actually cause another. For example, bipolar disorder is theorized to cause or contribute to drug addiction, while addiction is often thought to be a precipitator of disorders like anxiety disorder or depression. Whatever the case may be, both addiction professionals and people struggling with this disease must understand how emotional disorders contribute to addiction, and how each must be treated in order to help the addict develop a better quality of life where their disorders are under control and the addiction is completely and permanently arrested.

What Is An Emotional Disorder?

An emotional disorder is a mental disorder that is not caused by a direct organic abnormality nor by injury of any type. Emotional disorders affect the way people think and behave, but more importantly they affect how a person feels. Emotional disorders are persistent, often life-long and include phobias like claustrophobia and other unnatural fears, but in most cases when related to addiction and alcoholism they include severe behavioral and emotional disturbances such as those present in the following conditions:

Bipolar Disorder

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, bipolar disorder is defined as:

“Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. Symptoms of bipolar disorder are severe. They are different from the normal ups and downs that everyone goes through from time to time. “(1)

Bipolar disorder causes marked shifts in personality that can make it especially difficult for people with this condition to maintain healthy relationships. This inability to carry on good relationships doesn’t just affect a person’s personal life, it also makes it extremely difficult for them to maintain a good job or pursue a consistent career, and it can make academic life downright frustrating. These impaired states of critical relationships can lead to serious issues like depression, aggression and in some cases, suicide.

People with diagnosed bipolar are often medicated in order to manage the symptoms of this condition, but often bipolar goes undiagnosed. Misdiagnoses are also common as clinicians and psychiatrists confuse or under-develop the true scope of symptoms. In many cases a person with bipolar may be diagnosed with mania or depression, even though bipolar sufferers will experience both states in a cyclical pattern.

Finally, treatment of bipolar can be especially difficult because some of the medications are habit forming, and also because the nature of the condition can cause a person to deliberately or absent mindedly stop taking their medications.


Mania is characterized by extreme, seemingly irrational fluctuations in a person’s mood and character. They experience great swings between elation and excited happiness, to aggression and irritation. These mood swings can change rapidly and with no warning and are often attributed to bipolar disorder. However, mania often does not present with depression, making diagnosis of any one of these conditions difficult without consistent, careful observation. According to the entry for Mania in Wikipedia;

“In addition to mood disorders, persons may exhibit manic behavior because of drug intoxication (notably stimulants, such as cocaine and methamphetamine), medication side effects (notably steroids), and malignancy. But mania is most often associated with bipolar disorder, where episodes of mania may alternate with episodes of major depression.” (2)

This suggests that while mania and depression are both considered part of bipolar disorder, each can exist independently of the other and independently from a bipolar condition. And like bipolar, the symptoms of mania can cause a person to use drugs in an effort to self-medicate their symptoms.

One of the most significant problems with mania is that a person who is suffering from this condition may appear to be quite happy – too happy, it might seem to some. This type of hyper-excitability makes it difficult for some to understand that a serious medical illness is present and instead might view the sufferer as hyperactive and dismiss the possibility of a potentially more dangerous condition.


Depressed people often express little interest in their lives. This can be particularly disturbing considering that in many cases, there’s nothing “wrong” – at least not anything of an organic nature. Depression is characterized by long periods of sadness, melancholy, feelings of hopelessness and dejection, and in many cases thoughts of suicide or other dangerous actions.

Depression can lead to substance abuse and addiction as the sufferer seeks to control their feelings by using stimulants to improve their mood, or other types of drugs that cause people to care even less about their depression that the state of depression does on its own – a confusing set of circumstance but one that anyone who is experienced with depression will likely understand.

According to the Uplift Program – an organization dedicated to helping people with depression;

“Depressive disorders affect approximately 18.8 million American adults or about 9.5% of the U.S. population age 18 and older in a given year. Depression will be the second largest killer after heart disease by 2020 — and studies show depression is a contributory factor to fatal coronary disease.” (3)

These figures are especially disturbing considering that many people who suffer from depression are unaware that they have this condition and think that they way they feel is normal. Still other people are too embarrassed or fearful to seek treatment and instead self medicate with drugs or alcohol. This problem is exacerbated by the public perception in many areas of the world that depression is a character flaw and not a medical illness. Combine this with the fact that some people also view addiction and alcoholism as a matter of will power or weak character, and it becomes easy to understand why some people with depression will not seek help and instead will turn to substance abuse or even suicide to alleviate their symptoms.

In Substance Abuse and Emotional Disorders Part II, we’ll discuss several other emotional conditions that are often present simultaneously with substance abuse, addiction and alcoholism. But if you or someone you love is suffering from a co-occurring condition like bipolar and addiction, the time to get help is now. Call the number at the top of your screen for a free, no obligation-consultation. It doesn’t matter where you are or what time it is – we can help. Call us now.

(1) National Institute of Mental Health Bipolar Disorder
Accessed 12/24/2011

(2) Wikipedia Mania
Accessed 12/24/2011

(3) Murray, Bob, PhD and Fortinberry, Alicia, MS Depression Facts and Stats January 15th, 2005 Uplift Program
Accessed 12/24/2011

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