By all accounts, addiction can be characterized as a brain disease. We largely understand that it has something to do with the dopaminergic reward circuit/pathway, but the exact mechanism of addiction remains largely unknown. What is known is that addiction is chronic in nature, causing recurring bouts of cravings and severe wanting, and sometimes recurring withdrawal symptoms, weeks after sobriety begins.
The way addiction attacks the brain and changes how people process their priorities and pleasures suggests that it also has an effect on an individual’s susceptibility to certain mental disorders, triggering or exacerbating them if the right risk factors were already there.
The statistics are damning, when considering the other angle. People who have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder at some point of their lives are responsible for nearly 70 percent of alcohol consumption, 84 percent of cocaine consumption, and 68 percent of cigarette consumption. People who are sick are prone to self-medicate, especially if they don’t seek answers from a mental health professional, or if their first professional of choice couldn’t treat them right. This often leaves them vulnerable to the effects of addiction.
But what about the other way around? It seems that research also supports that getting addicted puts you at greater risk for developing different mental health issues, for a variety of reasons. Let’s go over how addiction affects a person’s mental health – and why it’s important to treat a person not only for the physical and mental symptoms of drug misuse, but for all the additional emotional trauma they may be suffering as a result of their addiction.
Addiction and Depression
Certain drugs are more prone to triggering a depression than others. Alcohol, a widely-available drug sometimes used to suppress fears and anxieties actually increases the risk of depression. Alcohol is a depressant. This does not mean the drug actively causes depression, but it does cause your brain and body to “slow down”, giving you the effect of lethargy, low mood, and decreased mental arousal. The days slur together, as does your speech, and long-term alcohol use can begin to actively eat away at your memory and cognitive ability, increasing stress and strife while sober, eventually triggering a potential depressive episode.
Other drugs can also trigger a depression by way of their effect on your life. Many try to hide their drug use, for their parents or partners or coworkers, but someone trapped in an addiction is bound to slip and struggle with their behavior as time goes on, leading to significant consequences including breakups, job loss, and more. This can send a person into a depression as they find their lives falling apart, scared of looking for help out of fear that it would confirm that they have a problem they cannot fix alone.
Addiction and Anxiety
Drug use can also send a person’s anxieties spiraling through the roof. Alcohol, for example, explicitly calms the nerves – but it also causes anxiety to spike upon sobriety. Long-term alcohol use is known as a maladaptive coping mechanism for a condition like anxiety – while it does introduce a short-term calming effect and thus qualifies as way to cope with anxiety, this manner of coping is inherently flawed because it ultimately introduces even more problems, making your anxiety worse while leaving you to struggle with other problems.
There are healthier ways to cope with anxiety, and better ways to calm down. Other drugs actively make anxiety worse or trigger an anxiety disorder in individuals who do not have one, from relatively harmless and nonaddictive drugs like caffeine, to harmful and addictive drugs like cocaine and amphetamine.
Addiction and Trauma, Trauma and Mental Health
A more tragic fact is that people who struggle with substance abuse are more likely to experience traumatic events, including violence, sexual violence, and emotional abuse. There is a high correlation between trauma and mental health issues – trauma is any event the brain fails to process normally, leaving behind a form of mental scar tissue that causes various different symptoms.
Trauma early on in a person’s development can even trigger certain personality disorders, requiring very rigorous treatment. Later on in life, trauma is prone to triggering post-traumatic stress disorder, various forms of depression, and more.
Like other mental health issues, trauma and addiction must be treated concurrently. One is bound to feed in to the other, and only by addressing the full spectrum of symptoms can a person effectively find peace and be emotionally healthy again.
A Downward Spiral
The defining characteristic of addiction is the cascading spiral racing towards rock bottom. But that doesn’t have to be the case, for anybody. The idea that an addict has to hit a particular point in their addiction to “see the light” is false. It does take time and a dedicated group of friends or family, but a proper plan towards intervening in an addict’s life and helping them accept the idea of seeking treatment together is possible far before they come to the point where they can sink no further.
Don’t wait for yourself or your loved one to hit a rock bottom before you get help. In the worst case, the rock bottom is one you or your loved one will never recover from.
That being said, an addiction paired with a significant mental illness may progress faster that you might expect. Someone who is depressed would likely struggle with drug use very quickly, especially as they discover the euphoric effects of any given drug. The feeling of being depressed off the drug would only be further accentuated, causing the need for the next high to grow. This form of emotional dependence can kick in long before an actual physical dependence is established, providing an example for the clear distinction between a psychological need for a drug, and the neurological dependence on a substance after a certain point.
If you or your loved one has never been diagnosed with a mental health issue but has exhibited symptoms of potential depression, anxiety, or strange personality traits that make it more likely for them to fall victim to severe self-esteem issues, toxic relationships and traumatic interpersonal experiences, then it’s likely that these factors will compound with drug use and accelerate the development of a mental health issue.