Why Do People Use Drugs?

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Addiction is a growing problem in our nation. What often begins as an attempt to ease curiosity about a drug's effects can quickly develop into substance abuse and addiction. This is because many people are not aware of how the use of alcohol and other drugs – even in moderation – can cause long-lasting changes in their brains.

Why Do People Use Drugs?

If you have a loved one in treatment, you may wonder what motivates people to use drugs. Additionally, you may wonder why some people have engaged in drug use for years without yet developing a chemical dependency or addiction.

Becoming aware of the different reasons why people use drugs can help you to foster compassion and understanding. It can also help you to prevent substance abuse in your own life.

4 Major Reasons People Use Drugs

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) highlights four main reasons why people use drugs. These reasons include the following.

#1. To Feel Good

Alcohol and drug use are known to produce heightened feelings of pleasure. Research has confirmed that substance use facilitates surges of dopamine – a neurotransmitter responsible for producing pleasure – throughout the brain. These dopamine surges can be more intense than forms of pleasure experienced from natural rewards. Often, these surges are what encourage an individual to engage in drug use repeatedly.

In addition to producing surges of dopamine, each substance also produces a host of subjective effects that may be perceived as favorable to users. For example, consider the effects of illicit stimulants such as cocaine. Cocaine use often produces an increased sense of self-esteem, self-confidence, and energy, which can seem especially favorable in a nightlife setting.

#2. To Feel Better

The second reason why people use drugs is to feel better. Many individuals who experience distressing symptoms from untreated mental health issues or trauma may turn to alcohol and other drugs in an attempt to self-medicate. Those who struggle with stress management are also at an increased risk of self-medicating.

Understanding this can increase our compassion for people who abuse substances. At the same time, it is vital to understand that self-medicating practices are dangerous. Not only do they cover up the underlying issue, but they produce worsening symptoms as a result of drug withdrawal. Additionally, self-medicating practices can quickly lead to chemical dependency and the development of substance use disorder (SUD).

Illicit substances are the drugs we typically imagine are involved in self-medication or addiction. However, prescription drugs can also be abused this way. Many people rely on prescription medications for their physical and mental well-being. When medications are used as prescribed by a doctor, they can be incredibly beneficial. However, when people use prescription drugs in other ways, such as more often than they are meant to be taken, they are at risk of overdose, addiction, and other serious side effects.

#3. To Do Better

People also use drugs for performance enhancement. For example, high-school and college-aged students often abuse stimulant drugs in an attempt to perform better in school. Some may even use steroids to enhance athletic performance.

When people use drugs in this way, it can be especially difficult to cease use.

#4. To Ease Curiosity and Social Pressure

Many people begin engaging in alcohol and other drug use as means of easing curiosity and social pressures. Adolescents and young adults may feel inclined to experiment with substance use due to the peer pressure of their friend groups. Others may have witnessed their parents or other loved ones use alcohol at social gatherings as they grew up and feel the urge to engage in the behavior themselves.

People who began using drugs for this reason may need to pay attention to their social circle in recovery. Having loved ones who support their sober lifestyle is important.

How Do Drugs Affect the Brain?

All forms of drug use affect the brain. Some recreational substances do this abnormally, leading to cognitive dysfunction. Other substances like prescription medications do this medicinally, leading to increased coherency among brain circuits when taken as prescribed.

How the Brain Works

NIDA explains that the brain is composed of numerous parts, including billions of cells called neurons. Neurons are organized into different networks and interconnected circuits that flow through all areas of the brain. These interconnected circuits work together to carry out specific functions.

Simply put, neurons are responsible for controlling the flow of information in the brain. Neurons release neurotransmitters between themselves to produce changes in the receiving cell. The ripple effect of these changes in receiving cells is what ultimately leads to the performing of specific tasks and functions.

How Drugs Impact Brain Structure and Functioning

NIDA states, “Drugs interfere with the way neurons send, receive, and process signals via neurotransmitters.” Every drug does this in its own way. Similarly, it is important to understand that drugs also affect people uniquely based on their individual biology. 

Marijuana, for example, mimics the chemical structure of a natural neurotransmitter. When marijuana is used, it activates neurons in the brain. However, it is vital to recognize that marijuana does not activate neurons in the same way that natural neurotransmitter signals do. This leads to abnormal communication between the brain and the body.

On the other hand, individuals with certain mental health disorders may experience dysregulated communication in their brains. This dysfunction can cause a host of uncomfortable symptoms. Certain prescription medications can help to regulate chemical imbalances in the brain, reducing the intensity of such symptoms.

People use drugs for many reasons. Four major reasons are: to feel good, to feel better, to do better, and to ease curiosity and social pressure. Becoming familiar with the different reasons why people use drugs can help you foster deeper understanding and compassion for yourself or others who struggle with addiction. At Pathways Recovery Center, we offer detox services and residential treatment for those seeking recovery from substance use disorder (SUD). We strive to provide the most individualized support for our clients as they take time to heal from the lasting effects of substance abuse. If you or a loved one is seeking recovery, give us a call today at (888) 771-0966.

Clinically reviewed by 

Moses Nasser
Dr. Moses Nasser, a double board-certified physician in Family Medicine and Addiction Medicine, with expertise in holistic healing, addiction medicine, and psychiatric care, holds an X-waiver to prescribe buprenorphine and has extensive experience in mindfulness-based customer service and medication-assisted treatment.

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