There are some people who use drugs or drink and who don’t ever experience any negative consequences. They might be able to drink without it affecting their health, driving record, or ability to perform at work. At the same time, there are others who experience problems at home, school, work, and relationships. The use of drugs and alcohol has different effects on the lives of different people.

Furthermore, there are various reasons why someone would want to try drugs: experimentation, curiosity, fun, social pressure, improve athletic performance, escape from feelings, or ease the pain of a mental illness. However, it’s important to keep in mind that the use of drugs or alcohol does not mean there’s an addiction. In fact, someone could use drugs or alcohol on a regular basis but there might not ever be an addiction.

An addiction is a complex disorder that includes compulsive behavior, increase in tolerance for the drug, and continued use despite negative consequences. It remains unclear why some people develop an addiction to drugs and/or alcohol and others don’t. However, the following can contribute to the development of an addiction in a particular individual:

  • family history of addiction
  • abuse, neglect, or other traumatic experience in childhood
  • having a mental illness such as depression or anxiety
  • early use of drugs
  • method of taking the drug – smoking or injecting a drug can increase its addictive potential

If drug or alcohol use does lead to addiction for a particular person, it can have significant effects on the brain. Although various substances (marijuana, alcohol, methamphetamine) will have various effects on the body and mind, the repeated use of any drug can alter the way the brain looks and functions.

When drugs are introduced into the brain, they affect the ability for neurons to communicate with one another. If the brain can continue to be plastic, that is if new neural connections can continue to form and if old ones can be released, this is can support healthy brain function and mental health. These neural connections and adaptability are important in a person’s learning, behavior, and mood regulation. Some drugs, such as marijuana and heroin, will mimic a neurotransmitter and in a way “fool” a receptor. The drug will lock onto the receptors and activate the nerve cells. However, because the drug is not the neurotransmitter that is intended for that receptor, the neurons end up sending abnormal messages throughout the brain. Of course, this leads to hallucination, abnormal thoughts, and change in perception.

Other drugs, such as cocaine can cause the release an excessive amount of a particular neurotransmitter. For instance, the rush of dopamine that cocaine releases when an individual chooses to ingest it is dangerous, leading to permanent alterations in the way the brain processes dopamine in the future.  Also, the abuse of cocaine among younger adults is particularly dangerous, primarily because the brain continues to develop until an individual reaches the age of 24. Research indicates that teens are extremely vulnerable to the addictive quality of cocaine. Studies at Yale University indicate that neurons in the brain and their synaptic connections change shape when first exposed to cocaine. The structural changes point out that that the neurons are attempting to protect themselves when the presence of cocaine enters the body.

Other points about drugs and the brain include:

  • Taking a recreational drug causes a surge of dopamine, which trigger feelings of pleasure, and in turn, creates more need for the drug.
  • Once addicted, the brain requires that substance to the point of needing it like you would need other survival behaviors, such as eating and drinking.
  • Changes in your brain interfere with your ability to think clearly, exercise good judgment, control your behavior, and feel normal without drugs.
  • No matter what substance you’re addicted to, the importance of having that substance in your life on a regular basis becomes more important than friends, family, career, and health.
  • The yearning to use becomes so strong that your mind will find numerous ways to deny the addiction and underestimate the severity of the addiction.

Although drug or alcohol use doesn’t happen for everyone, if it does develop, an addiction can get out of control. In these cases, the help of a mental health professional is required.

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