Psychological effects of substance abuse

Updated April 17, 2017

Substance abuse can lead to lasting psychological damage. Drug and alcohol abuse can permanently alter areas of the brain and make it difficult to exert self-control. The brains of people who abuse substances show alterations in parts of the mind that are critical to decision making, learning, memory and judgment, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The Brain

Substance abuse disrupts the way the brain handles the information it receives. Some substances work in a manner similar to the brain's natural neurotransmitters. Other substances force the brain to produce an abnormal amount of natural neurotransmitters, causing the communication of nerve cells in the brain to become confused. Overstimulation of the brain intensifies its ability to feel pleasure. Many substance abusers begin using alcohol or drugs in order to reproduce the euphoric feelings they experience the first time they abuse a substance. Once the euphoric feelings of substance abuse have been experienced, the brain begins to crave more of the pleasure the drugs or alcohol produce. Absence of the abused substance eliminates the euphoric feelings. This leads to addiction and causes the brain to alter the way it operates if abuse continues.

Short-Term Effects

Acute substance abuse can lead to impaired judgment, bad breath, altered perceptions and distorted vision or hearing, according to the National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare. It is difficult to predict how substance abuse will affect users, since different people have different reactions to alcohol and drugs. A single use of some stimulants and hallucinogens can lead to catatonic syndrome where users become disorientated and mute. Using hallucinogens repeatedly builds tolerance, which leads users to increase doses over time. The particular drug used will determine the psychological effects. For example, methamphetamines stimulate the central nervous system and disrupt the transmission of neurotransmitters. Dopamine--a neurotransmitter that plays a role in the brain's reward system--is greatly affected by methamphetamine use. Schizophrenia-like symptoms occur in some meth users including panic, anger, visual hallucinations and homicidal or suicidal thoughts.

Long Term Effects

Long-term effects of using drugs include depression, anxiety, poor social skills and association with a deviant peer group, according to Substance abusers are more likely to be involved in crime; drug abuse reduces inhibitions and causes users to participate in risky behaviours that can lead to damaged mental states. Some people with mental illnesses start abusing substances to cope with the challenges the disease bring, but there is evidence indicating that drug abuse can lead to certain mental problems. Some of the major mental illnesses associated with substance abuse are antisocial personality disorder, manic episode and schizophrenia, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center.

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About the Author

Melanie Watson began writing professionally in 2004 and has work published on various websites. Watson obtained her Bachelor of Arts from University of Detroit Mercy and holds a Master of Arts in English from Eastern Michigan University.