If substance use has been part of your life for a long time, it can be difficult to imagine life without drugs or alcohol. Certain drugs may have altered brain function impacting your ability to naturally produce hormones related to happiness and joy. The good news is, that with the right care and support, you can rebuild your life and find true happiness without drugs.
Do Drugs Make Us Happy?
People rely on substances for a number of reasons. Some people use them to feel happy or to block out pain, others may use them out of curiosity or boredom, and some people may begin using drugs through a legitimate prescription. Whatever the initial purpose was, it’s important to recognize that drugs themselves can not make us truly happy. It is true that some substances can cause us to feel euphoria initially, but this doesn’t last and unfortunately it usually results in feeling worse than before.
Once the body and brain become used to the presence of drugs, feeling any sense of happiness without them is difficult. There are three major areas of the brain which are impacted by drug use: the amygdala, the basal ganglia, and the prefrontal cortex.
The amygdala is an area of the brain concerned with emotion regulation and creating memories, particularly in times of high emotion. This is the brain region that drives our ‘fight or flight’ response. We think of our body’s responses to stress and fear when we think of the amygdala. Using drugs impacts the amygdala by making it extremely sensitive. When there is suddenly no presence of drugs, the amygdala reacts and the user is likely to feel very unwell. For some people, this is enough to cause relapse.
The basal ganglia are a group of subcortical nuclei in the brain, responsible for motivating us. It drives us to do things such as eat and socialize. This region is responsible for motor learning and control, emotion-driven behavior, impact reward and reinforcement, addictive behaviors, and the creation of habits. When drugs or alcohol interact with this area of the brain, it can initially result in feelings of happiness. After some time, the basal ganglia rely on the presence of drugs to feel happy. People may find the only source of happiness they have becomes the substance.
The prefrontal cortex is associated with cognition, decision-making, awareness, and self-control. We know that drug addiction disrupts the prefrontal cortex and perpetuates compulsive drug use, but could also be the catalyst for problematic behavior linked with addiction, as well as decreasing self-control.
How Substance Abuse Impacts Emotions
We know that drugs and alcohol can dramatically impact our mood. Many people report feeling powerful, chatty, or euphoric in the immediate aftermath of using substances. Furthermore, it’s possible to feel calm and relaxed, and forget your worries after drug use. These immediate effects contribute to the addictiveness of substances.
Once these effects wear off, often the sadness or stress initially lost in intoxication comes back, and stronger. There is a defined link between abusing drugs and mental illness. The interference of drugs with the brain’s neurotransmitters and brain activity can damage the nervous system, resulting in destabilized mental health.
A widely known neurotransmitter that plays a big role in our emotion regulation, dopamine, is severely impacted by the presence of drugs.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter whose job is to carry signals between the nerve cells in the brain. Commonly linked with drug addiction, dopamine plays a pivotal role in the formation and maintenance of substance addiction. The activation of dopamine neurons results in a surge of dopamine; these neurons are responsible for pleasure and reward. We produce dopamine naturally in a number of scenarios. Some substances cause a surge in dopamine which alters brain function and we begin to associate the reward with the presence of substances in the brain, reinforcing drug use.
Managing Mental Health Issues
Untreated mental illness is a typical contributing factor to drug use. Unfortunately, in 2020, almost 53 million people in the US live with undiagnosed mental health conditions. Self-medicating with substances is a sadly common practice.
Not everyone is able to access treatment for their psychological health, but there are things you can do to manage the stresses and turbulence of everyday life. The crucial first step is to accept your feelings. Denying how you feel is a sure fast way to destructive behavior.
When uncomfortable feelings come up such as anxiety or anger, sit with the feeling. Try not to judge the human response you have to difficult scenarios. In acknowledging that you feel a certain way, you can learn more about yourself and what leads you to feel this way.
Accepting that you have control over some things and a complete lack of control over others can empower you to manage your symptoms. Difficult days will come, but you can build a repertoire of techniques to employ so the way you feel or your behavioral response doesn’t get the better of you.
This type of recovery and learning takes great strength and patience, but with the right care and support, you can manage it. Remember how far you have come to get to this place; your strength has gotten you here.
Below we have included some proven methods of maintaining positivity and even cultivating happiness, without drugs in sight. You can use some of these techniques in particularly difficult situations, and others you can incorporate into your everyday life to keep you from falling back into drug use.
Unlike with substances, natural dopamine highs do not leave you feeling worse than before. Using these techniques to bring positivity to your days keeps your emotions regulated, helping to guard you against triggers and stressors. If you’re at the start of your recovery, you may ask – how can I achieve a natural high? We look at some techniques below.
Meditation is a very old practice that is still used around the world today. Meditation is concerned with quieting the mind to the chaos of the world. When we meditate, we become aware of our bodies and senses to an extent we rarely do in everyday life. As we relax, we begin to free the mind. The associated feelings of calm are a catalyst for dopamine.
Exercise is not only good for physical health, but it can also significantly improve your mental wellness. The release of endorphins produced from physical exercise ignites your brain’s pleasure center. Furthermore, physical activity in the fresh air increases the benefits.
One of the simplest ways to find a sense of calm is by focusing on your breath. Simple exercises which can be done anywhere can work wonders to center you and prevent anxiety from overwhelming you. One technique is the 5-3-7 method:
- Breathe in for five seconds
- Hold your breath for three seconds
- Breathe out for seven seconds
The repetition of this exercise sends a message to your brain that you are safe. This impacts your heart rate and blood pressure; as everything slows down to a regular pace, you will find your body leads your mind into a relaxed state.
Throughout different countries and cultures, movement and dance have played a big role in connecting people. Taking part in a creative activity as a group and sharing rhythm and sound is one of the most effective natural highs you can find.
In the same way, listening to or playing music has been found to reduce levels of stress and have positive effects on our mental health including improving sleep quality, and increasing the strength of our relationships.
At Alina Lodge, we are proud to be among the top residential addiction treatment programs in the United States. We offer compassionate drug and alcohol rehab to the highest standard of care in our New Jersey center. Taking a holistic approach to recovery, we aim to get to the root of the issue behind your substance use disorder. Our core values of integrity, time commitment, and compassion underpin everything we do.
We use a range of approaches to address the underlying causes or effects of addiction. These include:
- Family therapy
- EMDR therapy
- Grief therapy
- Medication management
A future without relying on substances can feel daunting and scary, but we are confident that you can find happiness in ways that serve you and your body in the long term. Furthermore, the intensity of natural highs can be much more intense and powerful than the false sense of pleasure found in substances.
We understand the pressure addiction can put on not only the individual but the community of friends and family around them too. We offer therapy for family members, empowering loved ones to take their own role in recovery. Get in touch with us today if you’re ready to move forward in your recovery and access treatment to focus on your health and happiness for the future ahead.