Chemical and Emotional Dependence
Dependency is another word for addiction. If you are dependent on alcohol, for instance, you are addicted to that substance and you are an alcoholic. What most of us think of when we give any consideration to the disease that is addiction, we are thinking of chemical dependency. This is the inability to stop using a substance because of chemical interactions between the drug and the body. Substance abuse and addiction are not that simple, however. If they were, we might already have a cure. Psychological or emotional dependence adds another, in some ways more complex, aspect to addiction.
Chemical dependence is not necessarily simple either, but it is more straightforward. Chemical reactions in the nervous system create a need for a substance when you become addicted. So how does this happen and how does it work? It all starts with a fascinating aspect of the brain: communication between neurons, or nerve cells. Electricity moves through neurons, transmitting messages related to vision, odors, thoughts, emotions, and much more. To get the signal across a gap between one neuron and the next, a chemical, called a neurotransmitter, is needed. This chemical jumps the gap and carries the message on to the next cell.
The type and amount of neurotransmitter sent to the receiving neuron indicates the message being relayed. The neuron takes in those neurotransmitters through sites called receptors. The neuron that sent the chemicals out does a sweep up after the message is sent and carries back the neurotransmitters for recycling and to shut off the signal. This efficient method of sending signals and messages through the brain is responsible for our comprehension of various aspects of life, from the way we feel to the language that we speak.
Addictive substances like drugs and alcohol mess with the neurotransmitters and disrupt the messaging system. Some, like marijuana, do so by mimicking the structure of a neurotransmitter. It fools receptors and changes the message. Others, like cocaine, cause neurons to release a flood of neurotransmitters, amplifying messages being sent. These drugs all affect one neurotransmitter in particular, called dopamine. In natural situations, with no drugs, your neurons release dopamine in pleasurable situations, making you feel good. Drugs produce this result as well, which is why so many people feel good after trying a drug.
Unfortunately, this pleasure pathway, which in normal circumstances is good and useful, causes you to use drugs more and more. The pleasure you experience trains you to do it again and again. As you keep using, your brain adjusts by holding back dopamine. This is called tolerance. In order to get more dopamine and the same feeling of pleasure, you must use more of the drug. Over the long-term, your brain’s dopamine pathway loses so much function that you can no longer feel good without drugs. You are now chemically dependent on the substance you have been using.
Intertwined with the chemistry of your brain and drug use is your emotional and psychological state. As you become chemically dependent on a substance, you are naturally also emotionally dependent upon it. Because of the effects that the drugs have on your dopamine, or pleasure pathway, you emotions literally depend upon your ability to get more of the substance into your brain.
Emotional dependence has other aspects as well. Many people begin using a substance as a way to cope with unwanted or misunderstood emotions. For example, if you experienced trauma at some point in your life, you have difficult memories and emotions attached to it. If you do not confront those feelings and seek the help of a professional therapist or psychologist, you will struggle to handle them. You may turn to alcohol or a drug to feel better or to ignore or to drown out those feelings.
Once you have been using the drugs to get rid of your unwanted emotions, you may begin to feel like you need them all the time. Without them, the bad feelings start to creep in. You want to always feel the way you do when you are high and before you know it, you are both emotionally and chemically dependent.
When it comes to substances, chemical and emotional dependence get mixed together. Chemical dependence is inevitable, and your emotions cannot help but get affected. However, with behavioral addictions, which are not considered true addictions by some professionals, you may become emotionally dependent without the same chemical impact. For instance, compulsive eating does not involve any illicit chemicals, yet it involves strong emotional dependency. Of course, you cannot get away from brain chemistry entirely. Research is beginning to show that even these types of behavioral dependencies affect the brain and alter its chemistry.