Our understanding of addiction has shifted since researchers first began studying addiction in the 1930s. The early thinking was that addiction stemmed from a lack of willpower or that those with addiction issues were morally weaker. As a result, for decades, most people viewed addiction as a personal failing, not a medical condition.
Today, discoveries about the human brain have revealed that addiction is a complex health problem linked to various biological and environmental risk factors. The scientific community now understands how addiction changes the brain and ways to help prevent and treat those living with addiction. Unfortunately, much is still not understood about why some people develop an addiction and others do not.
Additionally, many people who live with addiction also have mental health issues. Living with both a mental health condition and addiction is a dual diagnosis or a co-occurring disorder. One condition does not necessarily cause the other, and it can be hard to determine which issue came first, but around 7.7 million U.S. adults have a dual diagnosis, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Other emotions, such as anger, also may be heightened or affected by addiction.
Addiction and the Brain
Drugs and alcohol affect how the brain functions. Substances interfere with the neurons, the messengers in the brain that transmit electrical impulses and chemical signals between different brain areas. Some drugs mimic neurons, causing abnormal messages to be sent throughout the brain and body. Other drugs release large amounts of natural neurotransmitters or prevent the normal recycling of these brain chemicals.
Substances mainly affect three brain parts — the basal ganglia, the extended amygdala, and the prefrontal cortex. The basal ganglia is sometimes called the brain’s reward center because it plays a role in positive forms of motivation. The extended amygdala is linked to creating stressful feelings like anxiety, irritability, and unease. The prefrontal cortex is connected to people’s ability to think, plan, solve problems, make decisions and exert self-control over impulses.
The Addiction Cycle
Drug addiction can be defined as a three-stage cycle — binge/intoxication, withdrawal/negative affect, and preoccupation/anticipation.
During binge/intoxication, the individual consumes the substance and experiences its effect. The basal ganglia is most affected during this first stage, resulting in feelings of pleasure. Next is the withdrawal/negative affect stage, where natural stress mechanisms in the amygdala are activated, causing the person to crave the good feeling they had during binge/intoxication.
The final stage of the addiction cycle is preoccupation/anticipation. This stage mainly occurs in the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain helps make appropriate choices, such as whether to use a substance or not. The prefrontal cortex acts like a stoplight, saying stop or go, with the stop function essential for inhibiting impulsive thoughts and actions.
Addiction and Emotion
Because of how drugs and alcohol change the brain, it seems logical that addiction affects a person’s emotions. Researchers have studied the connection between alcohol addiction and depression, finding that the prevalence of depression among those with alcohol addiction is high. Studies have also examined how those with substance abuse addictions experience higher levels of anger than nonaddicts.
Researchers have argued that emotions and feelings differ scientifically. For instance, emotion should be defined as the physiological responses in specific brain regions when a person is presented with a specific situation. Meanwhile, feelings are the mental states that result from the collection of reactions the person has neurologically to that emotion.
Signs of Anger Problems
Anger may be triggered by various issues in a person’s life, such as stress, family problems, and financial issues. Others may experience anger with other mental health conditions like depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Finally, anger can result from addiction to drugs or alcohol. Signs that someone has a problem with anger, no matter the cause, include:
- The person is hurting others, either verbally or physically
- They always find themselves feeling angry
- The person feels that their anger is out of control
- They frequently regret something they’ve said or done when angry
- The person notices that small or petty things make them angry
Anger can negatively affect a person’s health. If someone suspects they have a problem with anger, they must find healthy ways to manage their emotions. The first step may be to connect with a mental health professional, who can work with the individual to determine the causes of their anger and ways to change their thinking and behavior.
There are also a variety of techniques that a person can use to help them manage any feelings of anger they are experiencing on their own. For instance, when someone feels angry, they can try taking deep breaths and practicing positive self-talk until their anger subsides. It can also be helpful to avoid alcohol and drugs that may increase a person’s anger or lead them to act on those emotions. Other ideas include:
- Seeking the support of others.
- Keeping a log of when they feel angry to find the triggers.
- Trying to gain a different perspective by putting themself in another’s place.
- Learning how to laugh at themself and see the humor in situations.
- Practicing good listening skills improves communication and facilitates trusting feelings.
- Expressing feelings calmly and directly without becoming defensive, hostile, or emotional.
Experts recommend expressing anger rather than keeping it in; however, how anger is expressed matters. Frequent outbursts of anger cause problems with others, as well as cause stress to a person’s nervous and cardiovascular systems. This stress can lead to health problems or make existing conditions worse. Individuals should learn how to express their anger more appropriately. Often this entails practicing being more assertive in sharing feelings, needs and preferences.
A licensed mental health and substance abuse intensive outpatient program (IOP) in Scottsdale, Arizona, Rising Phoenix was created to offer a safe, welcoming, and nurturing environment where clients are not judged, but embraced, throughout their recovery process.