This is Your Brain on Drugs: Learning to Live with Your Addiction's Consequences


orange haze saying this is your brain on drugs
Unfortunately, drugs and your brain don't mix well together.

Millions of Americans suffer from addiction. The drugs they're abusing alter their brain chemistry so that their moods, behaviors, and emotions change. Therefore, those in addiction are seen interacting with their environment in ways that they've never done before.

The Effects of Drugs and Your Brain

Drugs and your brain interact and either slow down or speed up your central nervous system and the automatic functions that occur there (e.g., blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, body temperature). The levels of your neurotransmitters (a.k.a., brain chemical messengers) are also affected. 

With drugs and your brain, the drugs will affect the brainstem (responsible for controlling life-sustaining functions such as sleeping and breathing), limbic system (responsible for the reward system and emotions), and cerebral cortex (the "thinking center"). The more frequently you alter these things by abusing drugs, the more dependent you'll become on drugs. Therefore, you'll experience cravings and withdrawal symptoms when you try to get clean. This happens with drugs and your brain.

Marijuana and Your Brain

One of the most commonly abused illicit drugs is marijuana. This is especially true for adolescents and young adults. The TCH (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) interacts and binds with your brain's cannabinoid receptors so you feel both mellow and relaxed. One of the most highly affected areas of your brain is the hippocampus (the area that's responsible for short-term memory) which is why those who use marijuana struggle to remember recent events. With these drugs and your brain, the cerebellum and basal ganglia (the areas responsible for controlling your coordination and involuntary muscle movements) are also affected. Additionally, the reason people who smoke marijuana get "high" is that the drug interferes with their dopamine levels.

Synthetic Cannabinoids

Synthetic marijuana is like marijuana drugs and your brain, but much stronger. It's manufactured to be as much as 100 times more potent and active. However, with over 200 forms of it in existence today, it's difficult to know what chemical or molecular structure the drug has so its effects are unpredictable on your brain.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids 

Heroin and prescription opioid drugs and your brain's interactions are all the same. They bind to your brain's receptors where they trigger the release of dopamine. Here, they induce a powerful high that people want to continue, which is why they become addicted. Unfortunately, once you become addicted, your brain becomes tolerant so you'll continually need higher doses of the drug. When the drug wears off, your dopamine levels will drop substantially. Therefore, you'll feel tired, depressed, moody, and unmotivated when you're undergoing detox.

Cocaine, Methamphetamine, and Prescription Amphetamines

These drugs increase your focus, attention, and alertness. Since cocaine and meth rapidly flood your brain with dopamine, these drugs, and your brain combine to create an intense high. Unfortunately, this means you'll also experience a severe crash while detoxing from them. This will leave you feeling irritable, mentally confused, and depressed. The combination of the intense high and severe crash makes these drugs extremely addictive. This isn't the only way you're "playing with fire" here. Research shows that even long-term abstinence may not reverse all the negative changes with these drugs and your brain. 


This is a class of drugs that include prescription sedatives and tranquilizers (e.g., Valium, Lorazepam, Xanax, Klonopin) that are used to treat anxiety, insomnia, and muscle tension. They work by increasing levels of GABA in your brain. When they're misused (more than 4mg per day), they produce a euphoric effect and slow down your body's GABA production. Fortunately, your brain will rebound once the drugs are out of your bloodstream, but this doesn't mean you should suddenly stop taking them. Since they have a major impact on your brain's functioning, you need to taper off them gradually, under medical supervision.


This popular psychoactive drug binds to your brain's serotonin transporters. Here, it stimulates the activity of serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. Doing so produces a false sense of well-being, makes you more sociable, enhances your self-awareness, and increases your alertness. Most of these effects (e.g., paranoia, impaired judgment, depression) will last 3 - 6 hours, but feelings of anxiety and confusion can last for up to a week. This is because this drug and your brain alter how they process information and store memories, especially when used for a long period.

LSD, PCP, Ketamine, and Hallucinogens

These drugs distort your reality and perceptions, making you feel like you're separate from yourself and your environment. Nobody truly understands how these drugs and your brain interact, but it's believed that they interrupt the normal communication that occurs between neurotransmitters. Depending on the drug, they'll disrupt the glutamate (the chemical responsible for helping you with memories, emotions, and cognition), dopamine levels, serotonin, or opioid receptors in your brain. Therefore, you may experience anxiety, impaired motor functions, or distortions to your sight, hearing, or reality (what's known as drug-induced psychosis, a.k.a., a "trip"). As you can see, these drugs are unpredictable and affect each person differently. The good news is that they aren't addictive, but you may experience the residual effects of their abuse. For instance, about 5% of people randomly experience flashbacks or a reoccurrence of symptoms years after using them. Others suffer from hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD) which is a type of persistent psychosis and mental health issues that interfere with their daily lives. Therefore, these drugs and your brain are so unpredictable that you don't want to take any chances by abusing them.


If you or a loved one is struggling with drugs and your brain, there's hope. As an addiction recovery coach, I've created a program to help you get the support you need to remain sober. Take a moment to check it out for yourself today.