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Substance Use/Abuse

There are many psychological, social, genetic, and biological factors that influence a person’s use of drugs or alcohol. Using or taking drugs or alcohol occurs on a continuum and the levels of use are generally defined as use, abuse, and dependence.

The impact of using substances is enticing. Drugs and alcohol produce surges in dopamine in the brain – feelings of pleasure or euphoria - which leads people to repeat the behavior. Over time, the brain adapts to the levels of dopamine and therefore requires greater amounts of the drug/alcohol for the same ‘good feeling,’ challenging a person’s ability to manage or quit. Decision-making and self-control tend to be desensitized by dopamine. Substance use tends to be associated with particular aspects of the person’s life or daily routines testing the individual’s resolve.

Substance use disorders involve disrupting the brain circuits involved in reward, decision-making, learning, and self-control. Alcohol disrupts the brain’s communication pathways, changes our moods and behaviors, and impact our ability to think clearly and move with coordination. With heavy substance use, people often experience depression and anxiety.

Recent studies show that repeated episodes of binge drinking during teen years can affect the trajectory of adolescent brain development, and cause deficits in social, attention, memory, and other cognitive functions. These conditions result from combined interactions of genetics and changing environments those impact vary across developmental stages of each person’s life.

Using or overusing these substances can impact an individual’s personal or professional relationships and abilities to function over time. Studies show that people with substance use disorders often do not have the same social supports and experience more marital problems, as compared to those without these difficulties. Social support makes a significant positive difference in recovery, yet many people find they need to build new, and/or repair existing relationships as they reshape their lives in healthy ways.

Relapse is common for people with substance abuse problems especially during stressful times or when returning to social/environmental situations which they had linked with significant use of drugs or alcohol. Persistenceand support are necessary to incorporate healthy practices and attitudes.

Changing habits and associations requires hard work, takes time, and often needs the assistance of professionals, as well as twelve-step mutual assistance programs. Psychotherapy is found to be help people engage in treatment, modify their attitudes and behaviors related to substance abuse, and increase their capabilities to handle stresses and environmental cues that had previously prompted their previous substance abuse. Psychologists can guide individuals to shape their lives in healthy and more meaningful ways.

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