The longer an addiction lasts, the more stress and strain it puts on the individual. There is an overwhelming number of long-term physical and emotional effects addiction can have that can easily turn a healthy man or woman into a frail shadow of their former self.
The following information is designed to help you understand how addiction can wreak havoc on your physical and mental health and how getting treatment can help to undo this damage.
Addiction is frequently intertwined with other mental health issues, but this relationship doesn’t always have a clear directionality. For example, people who suffer from mood or anxiety disorders are almost twice as likely to also suffer from a substance use disorder, and people who suffer from substance use disorders are approximately twice as likely to also struggle with a mood or anxiety disorder.1 It isn’t clear which issue is causing the other, but the relationship is strong nonetheless.1
The psychological distress associated with substance abuse and drug abuse can range from mild to serious. At any level of severity, this distress can have a profoundly negative impact on the life of an addicted individual. Among the most common long-term mental health issues associated with drug abuse and addiction are:
- Depression. There is a clear association between substance abuse and depression, as well as other mood disorders.2 This relationship could be attributed to preexisting depression that led to drug abuse or it could be that substance use caused changes in the brain that increased depressive symptoms.2 Some people use drugs to self-medicate symptoms of depression, but this only alleviates the symptoms while the user is high. It may even make depression symptoms worse when the user is working through withdrawal. Many drugs have a withdrawal syndrome that includes depression or other mood disturbances, which can complicate recovery.
- ?Anxiety. Addiction is also associated with anxiety and panic disorders.1 Again, the cause is difficult to discern and can be different among individuals. For one person, they could develop a pattern of abuse after using drugs (e.g., benzodiazepines like Xanax) to cope with their symptoms. Another person could have a long-standing pattern of drug abuse and consequently develop anxiety problems. Many substances, particularly stimulants like cocaine, can cause anxiety as a dose-dependent side effects.3 Other drugs, like benzodiazepines, can bring about increased anxiety as part of their withdrawal syndromes.4
- Paranoia. Some drugs, like cocaine and marijuana, can cause feelings of paranoia that may amplify with long-term abuse.3, 5 On top of this, people struggling with addiction may feel that they need to hide or lie about their substance use, indicating a fear of being caught. The fact that many substances of abuse are illegal can also contribute to mounting feelings of paranoia among long-term substance users.
People who suffer from substance use disorders are approximately twice as likely to also struggle with a mood or anxiety disorder.
Sometimes, drug abuse can actually increase a user’s risk of developing a mental disorder. For example, there is evidence that smoking marijuana during adolescence can increase a person’s risk of psychosis during adulthood.1 These associations, however, may be most pronounced in those with a genetic predisposition for psychological issues. Substance addiction and mental illness are disorders that develop due to many different factors, both genetic and environmental.1 When a person with a genetic predisposition for developing psychological disorders abuses drugs, they may further increase their risk of developing a mental illness in the future.
In addition to the numerous mental health issues that spring up as a result of long-term drug addiction, there are also a number of issues affecting the physical health of the individual who is abusing drugs over a sustained period of time. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), long-term drug abuse can affect:
- The kidneys. The human kidney can be damaged both directly and indirectly by habitual drug use over a period of many years. Abusing certain substances can cause dehydration, muscle breakdown, and increased body temperature—all of which contribute to kidney damage over time. Kidney failure is not uncommon among long-time users of heroin, MDMA, ketamine, and other dangerous drugs.6
- ?The liver. Liver failure is a well-known consequence of alcoholism, but it also can occur with individuals using opioids, steroids, inhalants, or DXM habitually over many years.7 The liver is important for clearing toxins from the bloodstream, and chronic substance abuse can overwork this vital organ, leading to damage from chronic inflammation, scarring, tissue necrosis, and even cancer, in some instances. The liver may be even more at risk when multiple substances are used in combination.7
- ?The heart. Many drugs have the potential to cause cardiovascular issues, which can range from increased heart rate and blood pressure to aberrant cardiac rhythms and myocardial infarction (i.e., heart attack). Injection drug users are also at risk of collapsed veins and bacterial infections in the bloodstream or heart.8
- ?The lungs. The respiratory system can suffer damage related to smoking or inhaling drugs, such as marijuana and crack cocaine. In addition to this kind of direct damage, drugs that slow a person’s breathing, such as heroin or prescription opioids, can cause serious complications for the user.
Another danger well known to long-term drug abusers is mounting tolerance. Tolerance is dangerous as it causes the individual to use more and more of a drug in order to achieve the desired euphoric or stimulated state. This puts the individual at an elevated risk for overdose and even death.
Addiction isn’t just about drug abuse; it is an entire set of behaviors and habits surrounding substance use. When it takes over a person’s life, they may find themselves doing things they never expected and saddled with challenges that can seem, at times, insurmountable. Some people lie about their drug use or get extremely defensive when it is brought up. Others may neglect their family and friends in favor of using. Addiction looks different for every individual.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is what clinicians use to determine if a person is struggling with a substance use disorder (SUD), and among its diagnostic criteria are several characteristic psychosocial and behavioral changes that addicted individuals often exhibit, such as:10
When addiction takes over a person’s life, they may find themselves doing things they never expected and saddled with challenges that can seem, at times, insurmountable.
- Taking a substance in higher doses or for longer than intended.
- Wanting to quit using but being unable to.
- Spending a lot of time trying to get, use, or recover from the substance.
- Craving the substance, or having a strong desire to use it.
- Being unable to fulfill school, home, or work obligations because of substance use.
- Continuing to use the substance despite recurring or persistent social or interpersonal problems related to use.
- Reducing or stopping important social, recreational, or occupational activities due to substance use.
- Recurrent substance use in physically dangerous situations.
- Consistent substance use despite knowing knowledge that it is causing or worsening psychological or physical problems.
Other behavioral changes common to individuals struggling with addiction include:
- Lying to friends/family members.
- Becoming more secretive and/or suspicious.
- Changing friend groups.
- Getting into legal trouble.
- Going into debt/spending money exorbitantly.
No matter how addiction manifests, it is vital that the person get help before it’s too late.
Help for the Long-Term Drug Abuser
If a person is struggling with substance abuse for a long period of time, they may be suffering severe damage to their body and brain. Addiction can affect nearly every aspect of an individual’s life, and yet sometimes they may not even realize or acknowledge that they have a problem. In this case, friends and family members may want to consider organizing a professional intervention. This involves contacting an addiction intervention professional, or an interventionist, to help lead a group discussion with the struggling individual and the people that care about them. During the meeting, loved ones share changes they have seen or experienced due to the addiction, while emphasizing the need for treatment.
There are many different treatment options for a struggling individual. Inpatient treatment allows the patient to stay in a 100% sober treatment facility for the duration of the treatment program. For those with a co-occurring mental disorder, dual diagnosis inpatient programs will provide care for the individual’s addiction recovery and psychological needs. Inpatient treatment is a great way to escape the stressors and triggers of everyday life and focus entirely on recovery.
Outpatient programs are another great option for people struggling with addiction. In an outpatient program, an individual will continue to live at home throughout the program, checking in for treatment sessions on a regular basis. These are an excellent option for people who cannot take time away from home, but they do require a higher level of self-motivation to maintain abstinence because the home environment is often rife with triggers to use.
No matter what type of program a person chooses, what matters is getting and staying clean. The sooner a person gets help, the less damage their addiction can cause to both themselves and the people around them. It’s never too late to ask for help; reach out and get started on the recovery journey today.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2010). Research Report Series, Comorbidity: Addiction and Other Mental Illness. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
- Volkow, N. D. (2004). The reality of comorbidity: Depression and drug abuse. Biological Psychiatry, 56(10), 714-717.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). What are the short-term effects of cocaine use?
- Petursson, H. (1994). The benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome. Addiction, 89(11), 1455-1459.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). DrugFacts: Marijuana.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). Health Consequences of Drug Misuse: Kidney Damage.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). Health Consequences of Drug Misuse: Liver Damage.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). Health Consequences of Drug Misuse: Cardiovascular Effects.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). Health Consequences of Drug Misuse: Respiratory Effects.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. Washington, D.C: American Psychiatric Association.