Growing up I didn’t know a thing about mental health. It was never something we discussed at home, and no one at school ever taught us anything about the subject. In fact, it was only after I was diagnosed with a mental disorder that I realized there existed such a thing. Mental illnesses have been a taboo for a very long time, and even though people have recently started speaking up about it, there is still a lot of disinformation and stigma surrounding the subject. This makes it really hard for us to know exactly how to prevent them.
When I was a teenager I started consuming drugs and alcohol on a regular basis. Soon after I became addicted to these substances. While I was dealing with drug and alcohol addiction, I also started suffering from anxiety and depression, but, since I didn’t know the feelings I was experiencing were caused by mental illnesses, I thought I was going crazy. And whenever I felt overwhelmed by these feelings, the best solution for me was drinking or using drugs to try to numb them, which created a vicious cycle.
In my mid-twenties I finally checked into a rehabilitation center where they helped me heal both physically and mentally. It was there that I found out I had been suffering from anxiety and depression all along. I have been sober for 9 years now, and today I would like to share with you 5 ways in which drugs and alcohol can affect your mental health.
Alcohol in Your Brain
You probably have already heard about how alcohol can permanently damage some organs in your body such as your heart and your liver. While these effects are a good enough reason to avoid heavy drinking, in my opinion, there isn’t enough awareness of what alcohol can do to your brain.
Alcohol is a depressant, which means that, even though it can make you feel energized and happy at first, it actually slows down your central nervous system. Alcohol abuse can have negatively impact your brain function in several ways, such as injury and death of brain cells, alterations to brain chemical concentrations, and deprivation of oxygen to brain tissue. These conditions can result in psychosis, nerve paralysis and mental confusion, as well as an inability to coordinate muscle movement.
Drugs in Your Brain
Your brain is the organ that coordinates all of your body’s processes, and, just like alcohol, psychoactive substances disrupt the way it normally works, which can bring a series of consequences for your health. Depending on the type of drug, it can affect different parts of the brain in different ways. For example, even though considered harmless by many, marijuana affects a part of your brain called the hippocampus, which can result in memory problems, impaired coordination, and learning issues. Other effects caused by other drugs include emotional regulation issues, anxiety, depression, aggression, and cognitive impairment among others.
Anxiety and Depression
Depression is an illness that causes deep feelings of sadness, it makes you lose interest in activities you used to enjoy, it can cause sleep problems and changes in appetite. People suffering from it might experience days in which they can’t even find the will to get out of bed. Anxiety is when you experience frequent, intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations.
There is a correlation between these two illnesses and substance addiction, which lies mainly in the fact that they can trigger substance consumption as a way of self-medication. When the effect of alcohol and drug passes, you’re left feeling even worse than before, which can make you want to consume more and more, eventually leading you to becoming addicted.
Your Brain Builds Tolerance
The appeal of drugs and alcohol is the pleasurable effects they cause in your body. This is because of how they affect your brain’s reward system by flooding it with dopamine, a substance that brings feelings of happiness and relaxation. Some drugs can release 2 to 10 times the amount of dopamine that natural rewards such as eating and sex do. When your brain experiences these euphoric effects, its natural response is to want to feel them again, teaching you to continue using the substances that produced these feelings.
However, as you keep consuming them, your brain starts building tolerance to them, which means it takes a larger quantity of the substance to cause the feelings of happiness and pleasure. So, even if you start using alcohol and drugs occasionally, maybe even only in social situations, your brain will eventually start needing more, which can result in addiction.
Substances and Prescribed Medication
If you have been diagnosed with a mental illness and are being treated with medication, consuming alcohol and drugs can be very dangerous, given that these substances can reduce the effectiveness of the medications and increase the risk of side effects. Depending on the type of medication, it can have different types of interactions with drugs and alcohol and cause different symptoms. However, some of the general symptoms of mixing psychiatric drugs with other substances include drowsiness, dizziness, increased depression, difficulty breathing, impaired motor control, unusual behavior, convulsions and disturbance in the heart rhythm.
Approximately 1 in 5 American adults develops a mental illness, and more than 50% of adults who abuse substances have a co-occurring mental disorder (1). These situations can be prevented and treated effectively when you know what may cause them and detect the symptoms. If you think you might be suffering from either addiction or a mental illness, make sure to contact a professional. The most important thing is to start adopting healthy life habits, including reducing -or avoiding completely- the use of drugs and alcohol or entering a drug and alcohol detox program. In my experience, a sober life is the best type of life.
Do you have any questions about substance abuse and mental health? If you would like to ask or suggest something, please leave a comment below.
By Andy Macia
who is residing in Los Angeles.