How Emotional Pain Leads To an Addiction To Opioids

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How Emotional Pain Leads To an Addiction To Opioids

Between June of 2017 and December of 2021, there were at least 11,000 opioid-related deaths in Arizona.1 There were at least 81,000 suspected opioid overdoses during that time. Unfortunately, Deaths involving synthetic opioids have been rising faster than those involving heroin.2 Doctors often prescribe opioids for temporary pain or chronic, severe pain. For example, some physicians may prescribe oxycodone for recovery after major surgery or tramadol for chronic pain.

However, new research findings show that opioids may not help all people with chronic pain. They may even worsen things by creating more emotional pain that may exacerbate physical pain.3 That is because opioids affect brain function and interfere with emotional regulation. It helps to understand how they act on the brain and how an addiction to opioids develops when there is emotional pain. Understanding emotional pain and addiction is an essential first step toward seeking help from an addiction treatment center. 

How Opioids Affect the Brain and Pain

A critical way opioids affect the brain is by activating the mesolimbic reward system.4 The system is responsible for sending signals in the brain’s ventral tegmental area. As a result, dopamine is released in another part of the brain, and it causes pleasure feelings.

Other brain areas create memories or records of those feelings of pleasure, and they remain associated with the environment, circumstances, or substance surrounding them.

Feelings of pain may also lessen due to what opioids do to the brain. This is why doctors often prescribe opioids to treat physical pain, especially if it is severe enough that over-the-counter medications cannot reduce it enough to help.

How Addiction To Opioids Develops

It is essential first to distinguish between tolerance, dependence, and addiction. Tolerance occurs when a person uses opioids for some time and requires a larger dose to feel the same effect.5 As a result, the person may consume more of the substance. The body adjusts to an increase of the substance, and dependence occurs.

When a person is dependent on opioids, the individual experiences more severe withdrawal sooner or when stopping the substance. Addiction happens when people cannot stop using opioids even though they feel or recognize the drugs’ adverse effects.

When the brain creates memories of pleasurable feelings, people are more likely to continue seeking the substance that made it. This is especially true when they continue using a substance that produces rewarding feelings after physical pain is gone.4

Since opioids make lasting and distinct changes in how the brain sends and receives chemical signals, there are other changes. As a result, people often behave in ways that they would not normally behave to continue using substances.4

Signs of an Opioid Addiction

These are some examples of behavioral changes associated with opioid addiction:

  • Behaving in a secretive manner.
  • Withdrawal from social, family, school, or work commitments.
  • Poorer work or school performance.
  • Mood swings or unusual lethargy.
  • Closely guarding a purse, drawer, or another location where they keep opioids.
  • New financial or legal troubles.

Although some people may not recognize behavioral changes in themselves, family, coworkers, and friends may recognize these changes in another person.

Why Emotional Pain May Lead To an Addiction To Opioids

Understanding emotional pain and addiction helps explain why opioids may not be effective for people with emotional pain. As discussed in a previous section, opioids create a rewarding feeling in the brain. Those pleasurable feelings are especially attractive to a person with emotional pain. Whether a person has a prescription for opioids or not, the individual may feel compelled to take them simply for the pleasurable feeling. However, the emotional pain can become worse.

In a study of more than 30 healthy adult males, researchers administered an opioid medication, a placebo, and naloxone in various infusions.6 The participants were not informed about what they received in each infusion. Naloxone is a drug that reverses and immediately cancels the effects of opioids. As a result, it is effective in reversing dangerous overdoses. The researchers in the study measured pleasure and emotional responses.

Although participants felt pleasure from receiving the opioid medication, their emotional arousal responses were not affected. This suggests that people who take opioids to self-medicate for emotional pain may only develop a dangerous addiction. Since opioids affect how the brain sends and receives signals, they make emotional regulation more difficult.7 People may notice worsening emotional struggles due to the misuse of opioids. If they take the drugs to treat chronic pain, tolerance may also reduce the physical painkilling effects.

How Addiction Treatment Helps with Emotional Pain and Addiction

In many cases, people who seek opioids or other substances without a prescription or a need for them often do so to self-treat emotional pain. When that leads to addiction, a person requires dual diagnosis treatment. This is a special type of treatment that addresses the addiction and underlying mental health issues. There is a greater chance of staying in recovery by treating the problem that led to the addiction. Our facility recognizes each person’s unique struggles and offers comprehensive treatments to help facilitate recovery, including physical activities, holistic therapies, and more.

Please get in touch with Silver Sands Recovery to learn more about emotional pain and opioids or overcome an addiction to opioids.

 

Sources:
[1] https://www.azdhs.gov/prevention/womens-childrens-health/injury-prevention/opioid-prevention/index.php
[2] https://www.drugabuse.gov/drug-topics/opioids/opioid-summaries-by-state/arizona-opioid-involved-deaths-related-harms
[3] https://www.newswise.com/articles/perspective-why-opioids-cannot-fix-chronic-pain
[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2851054/
[5] https://archives.drugabuse.gov/blog/post/tolerance-dependence-addiction-whats-difference
[6] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/05/190524102753.htm
[7] https://www.verywellmind.com/how-can-i-stop-hurting-22422

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