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How Drugs Affect the Brain: Stimulants & Depressants

October 17th, 2018 Posted by Blog 0 comments on “How Drugs Affect the Brain: Stimulants & Depressants”

The science of addiction spans across multiple areas of the body. When we explore how drugs affect the brain, we have to consider the various types of substances people abuse and how each of them impacts different areas of the brain and central nervous system. Understanding the effects of drugs on the brain and health can put addiction into perspective and encourage people to re-evaluate their choice to use.

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, nearly 28 million Americans over the age of 12 used illicit drugs in 2016. Approximately one in 10 of those individuals had used illicit drugs in the past month.

With so many people around the country using drugs, it’s important to understand how they affect our health and ability to make the right choices for our own well-being. Just because a drug is legalized, for example, doesn’t mean it’s good for you.

The Different Types of Drugs and Their Effects

No two drugs are the same. Before we cover the different ways drugs affect the brain, we must define the different types of drugs people use. Here is an overview:

Depressants

how drugs affect the brain

Often called “downers,” depressants suppress brain function, inhibit communication, and leave people feeling relaxed. Popular depressant drugs include alcohol, barbiturates like Amytal, and benzodiazepines like Xanax.

Depressants sedate and slow down the central nervous system, leading to feelings of drowsiness and tranquility. Many people who abuse depressants were originally prescribed a sleep aid, sedative, or antipsychotic drug but ended up developing substance use disorder (SUD). Although their medication was prescribed by a doctor, people with SUD develop a tolerance for a drug and require higher quantities to achieve the desired effects.

Over time, the dependence on the medication leads to issues at work or school and negatively impacts personal relationships. The calming sensation brought on by depressants alleviates many of the symptoms of anxiety and depression, so people become addicted to the sleepy, dream-like state. Many people who have been prescribed a depressant are shocked to find themselves requiring treatment for drug addiction later on.

Stimulants

ADHD medications like Adderall and Ritalin are often abused by people who want the hyper-focused concentration and attention levels that come from abusing stimulants. Other drugs like crack cocaine, methamphetamine (crystal meth), and MDMA trigger a “rush” of energy and euphoria that makes people feel more alert, attentive, and sensitive to their environment.

Many college students abuse stimulants to help them study and meet important deadlines. Non-prescriptive use of stimulants can lead to chemical imbalances that result in depression, insomnia, and even seizures and heart failure.

Psychoactive Drugs

Drugs that change a user’s perspective of reality are called hallucinogens. When people go on a “trip,” they are prone to seeing or hearing things that aren’t really there. Common types of hallucinogenic drugs are:

  • LSD
  • Mushrooms
  • Ecstasy
  • Marijuana (in high doses)
  • Mescaline

Hallucinogens are dangerous and unpredictable. The mood, setting, and emotions of a user will impact their experience, and it’s not uncommon for people to have a “bad trip” that leaves them feeling paranoid, panicked, anxious, or out of touch with reality. People on a trip are less likely to understand the consequences of an action and take risks that can endanger their lives and others.

Narcotics

The list of medicinal or prescription drugs that are often taken for non-health-related purposes includes narcotics. A few of the most frequently abused narcotics are heroin, opium, codeine, fentanyl, hydrocodone, and morphine.

In 2017, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) declared opioid abuse a national health emergency. According to the HHS, 11.4 million people abuse prescription drugs, and an estimated 2.1 million have an opioid use disorder.

Prescription drug abuse is only second to marijuana use in the United States. The rise of addiction must be addressed by providing greater resources, information, and services to people who find themselves struggling with SUD.

Areas of the Brain Affected by Drugs

There are three areas of the brain most affected by substance use: the cerebral cortex, the brain stem, and the limbic system. The cerebral cortex is the main operating center of the brain. It is divided into areas that support unique functions and control our senses as well as our ability to think clearly and solve problems. The cerebrum is the part of the brain that houses the cerebral cortex and limbic system. It makes up 85 percent of the brain’s weight.

The brain stem controls our most innate functions, including our breathing and heart rate. The brain stem also regulates sleeping patterns. In addition, it connects our brain to other parts of the body. When people are high on drugs, many of the physical side-effects, such as a rapid or slowed heart rate, respiratory changes, and issues with balance and coordination, originate in the brain stem.

The limbic system houses the brain’s reward center. Multiple structures in the limbic system work together and help people experience pleasure. Positive and negative emotions are also regulated in the limbic system. A chemical imbalance brought on by drug use can result in unexpected and unpredictable mood swings and lead to worsening mental health issues.

Many drugs trigger the internal reward system and create feelings of overwhelming pleasure and euphoria. Over time, however, overuse causes the reward system to weaken. People develop drug dependencies and have to take higher doses of a drug to feel the same effects.

How Depressants Affect the Brain

Depressants affect people mentally and physically by repressing the central nervous system (CNS). When someone takes a depressant, they usually want to achieve a drowsy, relaxed effect. Depressants speed up the movement of a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).

GABA blocks certain impulses between nerve cells and the brain. People who have taken a depressant will experience reduced brain function, fatigue, lower blood pressure, slurred speech, slower pulse and breathing, and general sluggishness and lack of coordination.

In high doses, depressants can cause people to fall unconscious into a coma. A high enough dose can slow the breathing and stop the heart. Depressant abuse has also been linked to depression, chronic fatigue, and breathing problems.

How Stimulants Affect the Brain

While depressants slow the brain function down, stimulants speed it up. Enhanced attention, concentration, and greater focus are some of the reasons people begin using stimulants. Stimulants are also the drugs responsible for the rush of euphoria and happiness we think of when we envision a “high.”

As mentioned earlier, stimulants include ADHD medications like Adderall and Ritalin, which are often abused in an academic setting. These substances are also abused by professionals who work in high-stress environments that require ultimate focus.

Other common stimulants include crack cocaine, methamphetamines, and even everyday chemicals like nicotine and caffeine. While a cup of coffee a day won’t likely have negative effects on your health, abusing drugs that overstimulate the brain can ultimately lead to depression and put you in a dangerous position. Stimulants trigger the rewards center in the limbic system and cause the body to be flooded with a rush of dopamine.

Dopamine, often referred to as the “feel-good hormone,” is responsible for humans’ ability to feel pleasure and find enjoyment in things. Prolonged stimulant use results in a dopamine imbalance that leaves people chasing the energized high of being on drugs. Without elevated levels of dopamine in their system, stimulant users are more likely to feel depressed.

How the Brain Gets Addicted to Drugs

Drugs change the way our brains process information. Just like with anything in life, our brain develops certain associations with drugs in our system and learns to only produce certain effects and reactions when specific chemicals are present. Nerve cells no longer send and receive information the same way once drugs have been thrown into the mix. Over time, the natural balance of the brain’s chemistry is affected.

Our own natural needs are diminished as the brain becomes fixated on receiving pleasure. Dopamine levels surge and then plummet after we use drugs that promote this feeling of pleasure in our brains. Over a period of time, the brain adapts to the process and begins to crave the same feeling over and over again.

Some people become addicted to drugs after only a few times while others may use for weeks or months before they develop an addiction. When learning about how drugs affect the brain, it’s important to also understand how long the effects last.

The Brain’s Recovery from Drug Addiction

Drug addiction destroys brain cells. Memory loss, learning difficulties, and emotional problems are often reported by people who are in the midst of recovering from an addiction. Healing the brain after drug use takes a lot of time, but thankfully, it can be done. The brain is a powerful organ that is known for its plasticity.

Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change and develop over time. Even when parts of the brain are damaged or neural pathways have been destroyed, the brain is capable of functioning on its own while simultaneously repairing the damage. Because so many of the brain’s functions are spread throughout different areas, brain damage from drug addiction can still occur even as other parts of the brain evolve and readapt to perform different jobs.

The first step toward healing the brain from drugs is eliminating them from your system. Drug withdrawal has many mental and physical side-effects that are best handled by a professional. Depending on the severity of an addiction, withdrawal can even be life-threatening, which is why we don’t advise anyone to quit on their own. Having the support and resources you need to deal with substance use disorder is vital in the recovery process.

Addiction isn’t cured overnight, but learning about the recovery process and various treatment options available is the first important step toward getting sober. During the initial detox period, the brain may struggle to regain proper functioning without the help of drugs. However, over time, the brain is able to become strong and healthy on its own, and you will be able to go on and live a life free from the burden of addiction.

Healing Your Brain After Drugs

Research has found that alcoholics who quit drinking were able to grow new brain cells for years. People once believed that brain cells are only developed early in life, but now we know that adults can also grow new brain cells. In fact, they can continue to develop throughout the course of a person’s life even if that person has been addicted to drugs.

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Relapse Prevention Guide

September 19th, 2018 Posted by Awareness, Blog, Recover 0 comments on “Relapse Prevention Guide”

relapse preventionMaintaining sobriety and meeting treatment goals after completing a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program can be the most difficult part of recovery. However, many people with a substance use disorder do recover from addiction and enjoy a lasting and satisfying sober lifestyle.

A number of those in recovery could relapse after treatment. Preventing or reducing the incidence of relapse by following a comprehensive relapse planning guide has helped many to enjoy drug and alcohol free lives in spite of potential relapses.

Planning and mastering the art of relapse prevention begins while you’re still in treatment. Relapse is not an out-of-the-blue event. Rather, it’s a process with a beginning, a middle and an end. As such, it can be monitored. If necessary, adjustments can be made to your relapse prevention planning to help you avoid relapse in the future.

What Is Substance Use Disorder?

A 2014 survey conducted by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health revealed that 21.5 million Americans suffer from a substance use disorder. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, a substance use disorder is “a chronic brain disease, with behavioral, biological, social, emotional and physical aspects, that is characterized by an inability to control substance abuse.”

What Is Relapse?

A substance use disorder relapse occurs when someone resumes using substances after a period of abstinence. A return to active substance use can vary in duration and intensity from one person to another.

According to the Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention and Policy journal, relapse is “a setback that occurs during the behavior change process, such that progress toward the initiation or maintenance of a behavior change goal (e.g., abstinence from drug use) is interrupted by a reversion to the target behavior.”

Relapse Is Not Failure

Relapse doesn’t mean that treatment didn’t work. For many with a substance use disorder, relapse is considered a stepping stone instead of an end point. When relapse happens, it simply indicates that treatment goals must be revisited and revised in some way.

Relapse prevention can include increased attendance at support group meetings. It can mean trying new types of therapy. It might involve that improvements in diet and nutrition or additional inpatient or outpatient treatment is necessary.

Relapse Can Be Part of the Recovery Process

With chronic addiction, relapse can be considered part of the disease. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, substance abuse relapse rates are between 40 and 60 percent. Those percentage rates are similar to those seen in other chronic diseases like hypertension, asthma and type 1 diabetes.

Common Relapse Triggers

Although everyone in recovery is unique, there are some common situations, also called triggers, that seem to be especially difficult for those recovering from a substance use disorder:

  • Negative emotional states
  • Physical withdrawal symptoms like nausea and weakness
  • Emotional withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, boredom, depression, frustration and irritability
  • Time spent with friends who use
  • Poor eating and sleeping habits
  • Visitation of places where you’ve used
  • Relationships that become stressful if something goes wrong
  • Isolating behavior
  • Complacency and letting down your guard
  • Interpersonal conflict
  • Peer pressure to use
  • Positive and celebratory emotional states
  • Commercials and advertisements
  • The use of will power or trying to recover by yourself
  • Behavior that tries to control your using

Negative emotional states correlate with the highest relapse rates according to a study by Marlatt and Gordon in 1985. Interpersonal conflict and negative emotional states taken together triggered half of all relapses. Being in social situations where people were using accounted for 20 percent of relapses.

Concurrent Mental Health Conditions

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, as many as 7.9 million Americans with a substance use disorder have a concurrent mental health condition.

Untreated mental health conditions can trigger relapse. Treating the substance use disorder as well as the mental health condition can increase the probability of maintaining abstinence. Although substances like drugs and alcohol provide temporary relief from the symptoms of a mental health condition, they actually increase the unpleasant symptoms that those conditions generate.

Phases of Relapse

When you view relapse as a process rather than an event, it has three distinct stages. These stages are emotional, mental and physical relapse.

Emotional Relapse

You might not be thinking of using. However, if you’re harboring negative emotions and participating in high-risk behaviors, you’re creating the groundwork for relapse in the future. The emotional stage of relapse is the easiest to overcome. The later stages get progressively harder to resist.

The trick is to recognize that you’re currently in a state of emotional relapse and change your thoughts and behaviors accordingly. If you remain for too long in a state of emotional relapse, you’ll progress to a state of exhaustion. This exhausted state is called mental relapse, and it will make you want to escape.

Mental Relapse

Once you reach a state of exhaustion, you’re likely to stop taking care of yourself. You could develop poor eating and sleeping habits. You might start to feel resentful and anxious or uncomfortable in your own skin.

In a state of mental relapse, you’re likely to isolate and not ask for help. Your mind is fighting with itself about whether or not to use. You might be thinking about using even though you haven’t picked up. In the mental relapse stage, it’s common to romanticize your using days and to wonder whether you have a substance use disorder after all.

You might think that you can now control your using. You could start hanging out with friends from your using days and fantasize about picking up. You might think you can get away with using because no one will know. The longer you continue to think along those lines, the greater the likelihood that you will pick up.

Coping With the Desire to Use

When you feel like using, here are some tips to reduce the possibility of relapse:

  • Tell someone that you’re thinking of picking up.
  • Do something to turn your thoughts in another direction.
  • Go to a support group meeting and tell the group what you’re feeling.
  • Hold off on using for 30 minutes. Most urges to use will pass after half an hour.
  • Don’t use until tomorrow. By tomorrow, you probably won’t want to.
  • Stay in the now. Don’t tell yourself that you can never use again. Just don’t use today.
  • Do something that you enjoy to help you relax and unwind.
  • Go out for dinner with friends. Putting food in your stomach can take the edge off cravings.

Physical Relapse

If you don’t take preventative action while in the mental relapse mode, you’re headed for physical relapse. At that point, you’ll feel so uncomfortable that you’ll have very little defense against picking up. Relapse can still be prevented, but when you already feel an intense level of mental and emotional distress that could be eliminated by picking up, it’s very difficult to shift your train of thought and change your course of action.

What If You Relapse?

If you resume using, don’t waste time beating yourself up. Instead, seek help as soon as possible. The important thing now is to keep the relapse from progressing. If you act quickly, you can lessen the duration and severity of the experience.

Substance Use Disorder and Brain Chemistry

Substances like heroin, alcohol, cocaine and prescription painkillers all disrupt the neural pathways in the brain. These pathways affect things like impulse control, decision-making, feelings of well-being and how you experience pleasure and pain.

With regular use, you’ll need more and more of a substance to feel okay. When your brain no longer functions properly without substances, you’ll have what’s called a physical dependence.

With physical dependence, withdrawal symptoms and cravings will develop if you try to stop using. You’ll no longer feel normal if the drug is not present in your brain in sufficiently high concentrations.

When you reach this level of discomfort, it’s very easy to convince yourself that using would be a good idea. It would eliminate the cravings and withdrawal symptoms so that you can get back on track. With this mindset, it’s easy to view using as a reasonable form of self-medication instead of a relapse.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Thinking Positive in Recovery

Physical detox clears substances out of your body, but that alone won’t keep you sober. After physical dependence has been addressed, treatment focuses on how to maintain a sober lifestyle while living substance-free. Sober living requires attention to the mental, emotional and behavioral aspects of a substance use disorder.

A form of behavioral therapy called CBT is often used to treat those recovering from addiction. According to the journal of the Psychiatric Clinics of North America, “abstinence rates may be increased with the use of CBT methods.”

Your habitual thoughts affect your health, your mental state, your emotional well-being and your behavior. CBT is used to explore the various ways that your thoughts affect your recovery. CBT can help you to replace the old, negative thought patterns so common in active addiction with positive thought patterns that support a healthy and satisfying sober lifestyle.

CBT and Learning Healthy Ways to Cope With Stress

Everyday stress is one of the most common causes of relapse. CBT can teach you new coping skills that will help you deal with stress in a healthy and effective manner.

CBT can also help you cope with the anxiety, depression, anger and emotional mood swings that make recovery so difficult. Studies published in the Psychiatric Times journal suggest that “CBT may actually help to improve a person’s neurobiological circuits in the brain.”

Length of Time in Treatment

It you’re in treatment for a substance use disorder, you can reduce the potential for relapse by completing your full course of treatment. The longer you remain in treatment, the more opportunity you’ll have to learn and establish new coping mechanisms before resuming a normal life in the real world. According to Psych Central, the length of time spent in treatment correlates with how long a recovering person is able to maintain abstinence.

The Role of Medication

Medication can help to regulate moods and reduce cravings. In many programs, medication is an essential element of a comprehensive substance use disorder treatment approach that combines pharmacological therapy with behavioral therapy.

Activities That Support the Recovery Process

Here are some examples of basic holistic activities that can help you to avoid relapse by improving your overall feelings of well-being:

  • Regular exercise
  • Eight hours of sleep
  • Healthy eating habits
  • Good nutrition
  • Yoga
  • Acupuncture
  • Mindful meditation
  • Massage therapy

Effects of the Environment on Recovery From a Substance Use Disorder

Some environments are more supportive of long-term recovery than others. Relationships with family members can help or hinder the recovery process. Family counseling and therapy for those who have loved ones in treatment can be helpful for family members as well as for the recovering person.

Counseling sessions can help family members to develop good communication skills. Clear communication makes it easier to support the treatment goals of the family member with a substance use disorder.

During counseling, loved ones are educated about how the disease of addiction works. When family members understand what the recovering person is going through, they are better equipped to help that person cope with stress more effectively. They can also help the recovering person to avoid triggers that could lead to relapse.

The Importance of a Strong Support System

Studies show that those in recovery who have received treatment and participate in twelve-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous are more likely to stay sober and remain abstinent.

Recovering people who surround themselves with others who are also in recovery receive regular healthy peer pressure and experience a sense of connection and fellowship with others. That ongoing support helps them to maintain a clean and sober lifestyle. Being part of a recovering community also helps those with a substance use disorder to avoid relapse.

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