One of the most significant reasons that people abuse drugs is for the euphoric effects they provide. While many might argue that people use substances to escape reality, to cope with stress and an unlimited number of other reasons, the fact of the matters is that euphoria makes these things possible: drugs cause people to feel good, even if they weren’t necessarily feeling bad to begin with. Unfortunately, the neurological nature of addiction tells us that substance abuse actually makes it more challenging for people to feel euphoria, happiness and contentment.
How Drug Abuse Works: Understanding the Role of Dopamine
The following is a highly simplified explanation of the processes at work when a person abuses drugs:
1.) Drug is consumed which sends signals to neurons in the brain to release the neurotransmitter dopamine (or others in some cases).
2.) Dopamine binds with specialized receptors and produces a feeling of well-being, contentment and euphoria.
3.) Drugs prevent dopamine re-uptake, essentially leaving the substance in the brain for much longer than would ever occur in a natural environment.
4.) Dopamine stimulates the reward center of the brain, which creates a contextual log of the event to use as cues to prompt the user to repeat the behavior. (This is based on the theory that addiction is a byproduct of an innate evolutionary survival mechanism.)
And with these four steps, the groundwork for addiction has been laid.
Tolerance: Another Evolutionary Survival Mechanism
In order to offset the effects of chemical substances, the central nervous system will make changes to receptors and neuronal circuitry to create a resistance to the drug. This can be accomplished by making fewer receptors available, altering the structure of receptors, limiting or restricting their ability to bind to neurotransmitters, or by “disconnecting” parts of neuronal circuits.
The chemical resistance created by adaptations at the neuronal level means that the user will obtain less and less euphoric effect because the CNS essentially views the drug as an invading foreign substance that interferes with the proper working functions of the brain. Of course, this is exactly what drug abuse is; persistent self-inflicted poisoning.
In order to offset the euphoria-limiting effects of tolerance, drug users will simply increase their dosages accordingly. This prompts more changes in neurons – changes that by this point are becoming permanent for many addicts. Ultimately, these changes only make it harder to feel euphoria and generally lead to depression, thoughts of suicide, feelings of worthlessness and other debilitating emotions.
In fact, feelings that are specific to certain drugs, such as high-energy to cocaine, relaxation to marijuana and joy to opiates, are often reversed as the body becomes tolerant to the drugs that cause these responses. This is especially true when an addict suddenly stops using; by forcing drugs into their bodies for so long, they have effectively developed a tolerance to the very feelings they sought to achieve with their substance abuse in the first place.
To summarize, drug abuse can destroy a person’s ability to feel good. And because addiction often comes with repeated relapse events, each successive period of active drug addiction results in additional, permanent changes within the brain – changes that can have a lasting effect on the emotional and mental well-being of the user for the rest of their lives.
This isn’t information to be used as a scare tactic to keep people away from drugs; it’s nothing more than science expressed. People take drugs to feel good, but once addicted those feelings become harder and harder to achieve, even long after active drug use has stopped. This is why it is absolutely critical that if you or someone you love is abusing drugs, they must stop now. With each passing day and each successive “high,” the one thing that they seek – happiness – becomes more difficult to come by; often leading to personal disaster.
The ultimate paradox of drug abuse is that it robs from you what you seek from it.