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Lasting Psychological Effects From Drug Use And Abuse

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

February 20, 2019

Drug addiction can change the structure of the brain and leave an individual with lasting physical and psychological effects. In some cases, changes in the brain are a sign that the brain is healing post-addiction. In other cases, the scars remaining from years of abuse may require additional psychological support. This is not a sign of weakness or failure but indicates a mark of self-awareness in recovery.

What Are Some Of The Lasting Psychological Effects Of Drug Addiction?

During the initial detoxification period, the physical ramifications of drug use are most apparent. Withdrawals can cause significant physical discomfort during the first few weeks of detox. However, following this initial withdrawal period is a less frequently described post-withdrawal period in which the side effects associated with the psychological addiction arise.

While the body is no longer physically “addicted” to the substance, an individual with a long-term history of drug or alcohol abuse will require time for their brain to heal. These changes may result in frequent mood swings, cravings for the substance, depression or grief, anxiety, insomnia, low energy, trouble focusing, and feelings of lethargy.

While experiencing these symptoms, it can feel like a never-ending cycle of emotional ups and downs, which can induce additional drug cravings. Research now tells us that these symptoms won’t last forever, and moreover, there are ways to reduce the severity and frequency of post-withdrawal symptoms.

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What the Research Says About Substance Abuse And Lasting Psychological Impacts

Research indicates that specific drug types have lasting effects on the brain, however, most share some common effects. One study examining methamphetamine abusers at one month and six months show little dopaminergic activity, however, scans at 14 months show signs of healthy, normal levels of dopamine transport. The same study showed that some meth users require a longer duration for healing to begin. This is similar with other stimulant drugs, and the side-effects which include anxiety, depression, memory loss, lack of focus, mood changes or agitation, changes in weight or sleep patterns, and cognitive impairment are similar across the board.

Cessation of depressant substances like alcohol, heroin, and benzodiazepines, resulted in periods of depression lasting weeks or months and, in some cases, years, even in individuals with no prior history of depression. Alcohol abuse is a major cause of depression and suicide worldwide. Depression and mild anxiety following cessation of alcohol use is also quite common and the greatest factor in relapse.

Other substances like benzodiazepines, used most often to treat anxiety, can also take many months before significant progress is made. Due to the frequency of co-occurring mental disorders and use of the drug, the matter of which is a long-term effect of the substance or symptom of a pre-existing condition is complicated. Studies do show significant cognitive improvement at greater than six months post cessation, though management of the co-occurring mental disorder is essential.

Common Lasting Psychological Effects in Drug or Alcohol Recovery:

  • Memory loss
  • Lack of focus
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Insomnia
  • Cognitive impairment

Overcoming the Psychological Effects of Drug Use in Recovery

Developing good coping skills and broadening your social network are two of the most valuable tools you have in countering some of the long-term psychological effects of drug use. Many of the post-physical withdrawal effects last a short while, but it can feel like forever at the time you’re experiencing them. While it isn’t easy, understanding how to identify which feelings are likely the result of continued withdrawals, and which are normal everyday feelings, can help you put the side effects in perspective. Planning ahead with activities to naturally elevate your mood, whether it be a nap or other quiet, reflective time, yoga, a walk, guided meditation, or other helpful coping strategies, can reduce the overall impact of these experiences.

Surrounding yourself with loved ones who understand what you are going through is hugely helpful. Helping them both understand the lasting impacts of drug and alcohol withdrawals, as well as the coping strategies that can be employed to offset the symptoms can make friends and family the best recovery allies. They can act as huge motivation during those times early in recovery when the individuals may find it difficult to self-motivate.

Apart from developing good coping skills while ensuring a broad network of support, including professional counseling and attendance of meetings or group support, there are ways to relieve or reduce psychological symptoms following cessation of drug or alcohol use.

Regular exercise can also more rapidly improve some of the biochemical mechanisms contributing to these effects, in addition to lowering feelings of stress and anxiety. Running, regular walks, cardio workouts, hiking, swimming, and even yoga produce similar effects through the release of endorphins and the subsequent dopaminergic response. Endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers, and this effect extends to reducing both physical and emotional pain.

While it’s easier said than done, finding the motivation to take a walk when you are feeling depressed or anxious can have an immediate effect on your emotional well-being.

How to Reduce the Impact of Post-withdrawal Psychological Symptoms in Recovery:

  • Broaden your social network
  • Develop good coping strategies
  • Continue with professional and group support services
  • Create an action plan for dealing with symptoms as they arise
  • Exercise regularly

Benefits Of Long-term Residential Or Outpatient Care

The lasting psychological effects of drug or alcohol abuse are one reason long-term drug and alcohol treatment is more effective in the prevention of relapse. Long-term residential and outpatient care provides a level of support that recognizes the ongoing struggles an individual will face during the post-withdrawal phase.

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