For most of us, it’s a no-brainer to avoid misuse of drugs: we see that the dangers and destructive long-term effects outweigh any momentary pleasure drugs afford and act accordingly. But it’s also easy to understand why people use and abuse drugs that pose risks to health and well-being. It’s a matter of brain chemistry.
Drugs are chemicals that enter the brain and mess with the way nerve cells normally send, receive, and process information. Some imitate natural neurotransmitters; for example, narcotic pain relievers mimic the effects of endorphins, the body’s natural “feel-good” chemical. Or they are similar enough to the brain’s natural chemical messengers that they trick brain receptors into activating nerve cells. Stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamines cause the neurons to release too much of the neurotransmitters, causing the sensation users describe as the brain “racing.”
And, in one way or another, almost all drugs overstimulate the pleasure center of the brain, flooding it with the neurotransmitter dopamine. That produces euphoria, and that heightened pleasure can be so compelling that the brain wants that feeling back again and again. Unfortunately, with repeated use of a drug, the brain becomes accustomed to the dopamine surges by producing less of it, so the user has to take more of the drug to feel the same pleasure — the phenomenon known as tolerance.
But what causes people to want to tinker with their brain chemistry in the first place? Some are thrill-seekers, some just curious; some try drugs because their friends use, or they want to be perceived as cool. Even more susceptible, though, are the many people who use drugs in order to cope with unpleasant emotions and the difficulties of life. The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that about half of all drug abusers also suffer from a mental illness such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia.
People who are suffering emotionally use drugs not so much for the rush but to escape from their problems. They’re trying to self-medicate themselves out of loneliness, low self-esteem, unhappy relationships, stress, and many other types of problems. Drug use doesn’t solve any of those problems, and it can easily make them worse or create new ones. But even if the user knows that, the short-term escape drugs provide can be so attractive that the dangerous consequences of abuse can seem unimportant.