Prolonged drug abuse negatively alters both basic brain functioning and behavior patterns in children. Parents may begin to notice the gradual changes happening to their child but are often either misinformed or ill-equipped to manage the situation. Handling it properly involves: understanding how drug use reconfigures brain functioning, the ability to identify shifts in behavior associated with substance abuse and choosing a drug abuse treatment plan that can successfully address the problem.
The Brain and Drug Use
Sustained drug abuse alters important communication pathways in the brain and motivates the compulsive behavior that marks addiction. The brain is made up of many components that work in tandem to ensure proper functionality. The areas of the brain that are affected by drug abuse are the cortex, the limbic system and the brain stem.
- The brain stem can be thought of as the basic control center—controlling heart rate, breathing and sleeping.
- The limbic system is the reward circuit, regulating the ability to feel pleasure and the perception of emotions.
- The cerebral cortex controls sensory function and is essentially the thinking center of the brain—powering the capacity to solve problems, plan and make decisions.
Communication occurs within a system of neurons—regulating everything a person thinks, feels and does. Because drugs are chemicals, they work in the brain by infiltrating the communication system and altering the way that information is processed. Drugs mimic the way that natural chemicals activate neurotransmitters by either inhibiting or over-releasing neurotransmitters in an abnormal way, modifying the communication system.
Drug abuse is a constant over stimulation of the brain’s reward system, producing an effect that generates an intense desire to repeat the behavior. Dopamine, a natural neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, is released at a rate 2 to 10 times that of a natural reward. The effects are immediate and substantial, and the brain learns to crave this.
The long-term health of the brain is compromised in the following ways:
- Learning impairment
- Inability to process emotion
- Natural amounts of pleasure do not register
- Feeling “lifeless”/“limp” /“numb”
- Uncontrollable cravings
- Compulsive behavior
Behavioral Issues Associated With Drug Dependency
Drug addiction also manifests in negative behavioral changes. Over time family and friends will see a marked difference in the way that the person who is abusing drugs engages in family, academic and social life.
Patterns of behavior that are cause for concern:
- General unreliability
- Stealing or other criminal behavior
- Lying or omitting
- Poor academic performance
- Negative interactions within the home and family
- Mood swing, violent impulses
- Arguing in conversation
- Change or withdrawal in social group
- Disinterest in former activities, like sports or music
- Change in eating habits
Behavior indicators can range from mild to the more extreme. When dealing with a chemical dependency, because the pathways in the brain have been altered it can be a vicious cycle, and a difficult one to break without proper intervention.
Breaking the Cycle
How much a person’s behavioral problem stem from drug abuse, and how much are a result of an intrinsic problem? This question cannot be answered until the drugs are completely removed from the system. For instance, an evaluation of whether a child suffers from a condition such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) cannot be reliably performed while chemical drugs are present in the system. This is because drug addiction and behavioral disorders such as ODD share many of the same symptoms.
To complicate matters even more, drug addiction erodes a person’s self-control and ability to make sound decisions, and manipulates perceptions of values and priorities. As a result, they will fight against treatment, but in reality the person who is underneath the addiction wants help, but is suffering from a distorted sense of reality.
Wilderness Therapy is a complete removal from the environment where negative habitual thought and behavioral patterns persist. It is an effective treatment of both substance abuse problems and behavioral issues because it operates under a multi-dimensional model that includes both Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). Wilderness therapy focuses on reconfiguring thought and behavior patterns in a positive direction that empowers the individual through self-realization and the learning of life skills.
Call Rites of Passage Wilderness at (800)794-0980 for information regarding drug abuse, and the drug abuse treatment plan offered by our organization including wilderness therapy.