by Laura Geftman, LCSW
In the midst of addiction, the drug is the only concern. You eat, sleep, and breathe your drug of choice. It can be difficult to think about much more. Your annual doctor’s physical or a check with your therapist- not really a concern. It maybe the you’ve been intentionally avoidance or neglectful. Or maybe you’ve been self-medicating. Either way- let’s take a look at the physical and mental health conditions you should be aware maybe a factor in your recovery.
What is addiction?
These days it’s pretty common to hear someone say they’re addicted to avocados, binge watching TV, travel, makeup, working out, tattoos… It’s even become common practice to add “-aholic” to thing you claim to be addicted to like “shoeaholic” or “workaholic.” Really our attitudes about being compelled to do or use things too frequently has become all “sex, drugs and rock-n-roll.” All jokes aside, there’s a thin line between over use and addiction.
Addiction is a crippling disease that involves what you’re doing or using taking over your life.
In 1956, the American Medical Association first recognized what we now call “addiction,” “substance abuse,” “chemical dependency,” and “substance use disorder.” While the terminology has changed, the chronic brain disease continues to cause compulsive activity despite health, social and legal consequences. The disease is caused by a variety of factors and lead to long-term negative consequences that can be deadly.
The American Society of Addiction Medicine has described addiction as “a primary chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.” It is all too common to think that addiction is only about a substance you can’t stop using. The brain disease causes those suffering from it to a need toward compulsory behavior or use of a substance.
Physical health effects of addiction
While addiction is considered a mental health condition, it undoubtedly also takes a toll on your body. When you’re actively using, your health often isn’t your concern but when in recovery it’s important to address.
Brain Repeated use of addictive substances can lead to changes in the brain. These changes can effect a person’s ability to resist urges and manage self-control.The repeated use of all drugs use and chasing of their euphoric effects can cause seizure, stroke, and toxic effects on the brain. Multiple brain functions can be altered including controlling the reward center, decision making, impulse control, decision making, learning and other functions. (source).
Kidneys Kidney failure is not uncommon amongst long-term users of heroin, MDMA, ketamine, and other drugs. Abusing substances can cause dehydration, increased body temperature and muscle breakdown. All of these bodily effect result in the direct and indirect damage to your kidneys. (source).
Liver A well known effect of alcoholism but also other drugs is the risk to your liver. The habitual use of opioids, inhalants, steroids, and more can erode your liver and prevent it from clearing toxins from the bloodstream. This type of damage no longer protects the body from inflammation, tissue necrosis, or even cancer. The risk of damaging the liver increases with polysubstance use. (source).
Heart Substance abuse risks the whole gamut of heart conditions from high blood pressure to heart attack. Injection drug use also risks bacterial infections and collapsed arteries. (source).
Lungs Inhaling or smoking drugs like tobacco, cannabis or crack cocaine runs the risk of damaging the respiratory system. Heroin and opioids can also slow breathing. (Note- here are some new studies that cannabis actually improves lung function when smoked or vaped but more research is need to confirm this as fact) (source).
Stomach / Intestines Long term drug use can cause decay and damage to your gastrointestinal system. This ca further cause constipation, acid reflux and chronic pain (source).
Hormones Infertility and testicle shrinkage can be a side effect of abisng drugs mostly related to steroid use. It has also been know to cause body hair growth and male-patterned baldness in women (source).
HIV and STIs The relationship between drug use and risky sexual behavior has proven to be the cause of contracting HIV and STIs. Sharing needles and unprotected sex increases the likelihood of contracting HIV, hepititus, and other sexually transmitted diseases. The drugs that have most notable been associated are cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, opioids, and steroids (source).
Pregnancy Sustained use of cocaine, heroin, inhalants, MDMA, methamphetamine, opioids, and other drugs have been proven to cause premature birth, miscarriage, low birth weight and other prenatal issues (source).
8 Most Common Dual Diagnosis Conditions
Dual diagnosis or co-occuring disorders are terms used to describe when a person is living with a substance use disorder and another mental health disorder (source). It is not uncommon to be diagnosed with more than one mental health diagnosis (source). Both of the diagnoses should be treated at the same time as it maybe difficult to identify if one is driving the other or vice versa.
These are the most common co-occuring disorders and how those living with them have attempted to alleviate symptoms with substances (source):
Bipolar Disorder Depending upon the phase of the episode, those living with bipolar disorder commonly use alcohol or cocaine to manage their depression or mania.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Alcohol and opioids are the drugs of choice for those attempting to soothe their experience of recurring stress, hypervigilance, detachment, and nightmares.
Depression This disorder bring on a persistent empty, sad and/or anxious mood that those living through it attempt to mask through their use of alcohol.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) To heighten a sense of focus or relaxation, those living with ADHD may find that alcohol or stimulant abuse creates their desired effect.
Anxiety An anxious person often continues to use alcohol, opioids and cocaine to avoid discomfort.
OCD Being consumed with recurrent obsessive thoughts that negatively impact daily function can lead to the use of alcohol or cannabis in attempt to slow the thoughts down.
Panic Disorder Overuse of psychiatric medications like benzodiazepines and alcohol are often abused by those trying to manage their nausea, dizziness, trembling, and fear of dying.
Schizophrenia Nicotine, caffeine, and other stimulants are often abused by those attempting to control their delusions, hallucinations, and disorganized speech and behavior.
Seeing a Mental Health Professional
If you become concerned addiction, it’s best to seek the support of a mental health professional- such as a social worker, counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist. When you see someone professionally trained in mental health care, they can help you understand the difficulties you’re experiencing.
Sure just the thought of seeking mental healthcare can create more cravings. You may think they will make you talk about your past. Or that you won’t connect with them to feel comfortable to talk about anything. Maybe you’re afraid to cry in front of anyone let alone a stranger. Worse- you think they’ll put you in a hospital, rehab or institution.
Please know I don’t bring this up to elicit fear but to say- those who work in the mental health field are trained to work with you at your own pace. You don’t have to talk about anything you don’t want to. Ever. The idea is to create a safe space for you to feel comfortable to connect with someone who can help you understand your symptoms and learn to manage them. Therapist are legally bound to uphold privacy and confidentiality. That means they can only repeat what you’ve said to them if they are concerned about your safety or the safety of others. Anything else you tell a therapist, they cannot repeat to anyone else without your consent. You literally have to sign paperwork stating they can talk to others about what you’ve shared with them.
Keep in mind- Untreated substance abuse disorders can be harmful to your health and even fatal. If you think you or your loved one may have a substance use disorder or addiction, see a doctor or therapist to determine the best course of treatment.
When to seek emergency treatment
Here are the signs and symptoms would warrant a trip to the emergency room immediately:
- changes in consciousness
- trouble breathing
- seizures or convulsions
- signs of a possible heart attack, such as chest pain or pressure
- any other troublesome physical or psychological reaction to use of the drug
If anything listed is cause for concern, call 911 or go to your local emergency room immediately.
About Laura Geftman, LCSW
Laura Geftman, LCSW is the Founder of The Calm, Cool & Collected and a practicing therapist. Beyond all things cannabis and mental health, Laura is passionate about developing greater understanding for kindness and acceptance. In her free time, Laura can be found on her yoga mat, in a kayak or singing karaoke.