Understanding Substance Use – A Closer Look 

Why do we use substances such as alcohol and drugs? Drugs flood the brain with feel-good chemicals and turn off the parts of our brain that worry and stress. For many people, and in small doses, this substance use never becomes a problem. But for a lot people, substance use can be a big problem. The brain starts to rely on the drug to feel better; and sometimes we can’t feel good, or even okay, without having the drug in our system. This is when substance use becomes more than just use: it becomes a way of life.

Why does addiction happen?

There are two prevailing theories on addiction, or substance use disorder (SUD): the biological theory and the social-emotional theory.

Biological Theory
In the biological theory, substances such as drugs or alcohol interact with chemicals, called neurotransmitters, that are naturally produced by the human brain. These neurotransmitters are responsible for our emotions, our stress reactions, and ultimately, our survival. When we use a substance, it either triggers or imitates some of the neurotransmitters already in our brains. This is why drugs can seem so effective: because they work just like we do! This is also why drugs can be problematic: because sometimes they work more efficiently than we do, causing us to prefer them, or because they change the way our brains produce these chemicals, causing us to rely on them just to feel “normal.”

Treatment from this biological perspective consists of abstinence from substances, cognitive behavioral skills to change thoughts and behavior related to substance use, and sometimes medication to give the brain a boost in restoring those neurotransmitters.
For more detailed information on the biological model, check out the book Never Enough by Judith Grisel, Ph.D. or watch her videos on YouTube.

Social-Emotional Theory
The second major theory of addiction is the social-emotional theory. This theory explains that we use substances to change the way we feel in any given moment. Using substances to change how we feel is a long-standing human behavior that we’ve been doing for thousands of years through different methods. Much of the time addiction develops when unpleasant and uncomfortable situations persist: physical and emotional pain, isolation, poverty, interpersonal conflict, or pretty much any situation you can think of that you wouldn’t want to be in anymore.

Treatment from this social-emotional perspective consists of the methods mentioned above, plus learning how to manage emotions, dealing with painful memories and feelings, and building community and fulfillment.

For a wonderful description of this perspective, check out the TED Talk by Johann Hari, Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong.

How can I change my substance use?

There are as many versions of recovery as there are ways to use. For some people recovery means achieving sobriety to meet conditions set by someone else in their life — a loved one, an employer, a case worker, or a probation officer. For others, recovery means using substances that do less physical harm to them and reducing the risk of serious injury or death. And for some people, recovery means understanding what reasons led them to use in the first place, resolving those reasons, learning new skills, and moving forward in a new life. There is no wrong way to recover if it’s what you want to do. No matter how you want your substance use to be different, help is available if you want it (and sometimes if you don’t. We’re persistent). Peer support groups, treatment options, and the recovery community are ready to welcome you and help you answer your questions.

How can I help someone I care about?

Talk to them. Tell them you’re worried about them. Offer support, even if you don’t understand what they’re going through, and you think you would do something different if you were in their situation. Being there, loving and accepting them for who they are right this very moment, is the best thing you can do for your loved one. That’s not always possible, and that’s okay. Be honest with yourself about how you can show up for your loved one, and then be honest with them about it. If you need to care from a distance, there are other ways to support them. Send them this post! Share some resources you think they might be interested in. Do your own research so you can grow your understanding of their perspective.

Feel free to reach out to The Center at 970.252.3200, or drop by a local meeting if that’s more your speed. If you’re looking for more information before you reach out, you can also check out findtreatment.gov or nami.org.