What Are Addictive Substances?

In “Alcohol and Addictive Drugs” section we will discuss the major drugs of abuse, including alcohol. But first we are going to look at some general principles that apply to all addictive substances.

As we have seen, drugs that have the potential for addiction interact in one manner or another with a part of the brain known as the ventral tegmentum, or the pleasure center. We also know that all drugs of abuse alter mood. These mood-altering drugs change brain chemicals and brain cells in a way that affects one’s mood regardless of the circumstances.

As a wise alcohol and drug counselor put it, “All these drugs do is fool your brain. You’re still anxious or in pain.” Moodaltering drugs allow a person to avoid facing reality temporarily. Unfortunately, those who attempt to avoid reality in the short term eventually end up colliding with it, usually in a painful way.

There is a major difference between mood-altering drugs and drugs that are used to treat conditions like depression or anxiety disorders. This point is frequently misunderstood, especially among recovering addicts and concerned family members. If you have clinical depression or panic disorder, the part of your brain that handles emotions is not functioning correctly, with resulting symptoms such as crying, irritability, nervousness, and sleeping problems.

There are usually external factors causing you to be upset, and the brain is not handling those issues in the way it is supposed to. Medications that are prescribed for depression or anxiety disorders work within brain cells to prompt them to function properly. Most of these medications take time to get into the system and become effective. The benefit is not immediate.

But a more important distinction is that these medications permit you to function optimally, so that you are better able to deal with reality. Your sense of being in control increases and your coping skills improve.

This is not so with mood-altering drugs. No matter what the condition of your brain at the time you start using, it will be changed. These drugs tend to override normal systems in the brain to produce an artificial mood state. When they leave your system, though, there is a rebound effect. The brain is going to resist this kind of unnatural override, and will not get back to normal for some time. To fight the effects of depressants, it becomes overactive; to fight the effect of stimulants, it becomes sluggish and depressed.

Elizabeth Connell Henderson, M.D.



Appendix A: Regulation of Addictive Substances

Appendix B: Sources of Additional Information

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