Co-Occurring Disorders: What They Are and Why They Happen

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Many of us find ourselves struggling with our reactions to certain situations that happen in life. Perhaps your heart races and you feel panicky when you have troubles at work or stress at home. There may be days when you wake up and can’t get yourself motivated to do much of anything. Being around others, especially in social settings, might make you feel extremely uncomfortable. 

 

If you are addicted to drugs or alcohol, you may have started using substances simply to quiet or manage these other feelings. Having a drink helps you feel more comfortable at a crowded party. Taking a pill or smoking a joint calms you down when you feel stressed. Doing a line of coke gives you the energy you need to start your day. 

 

Whatever prompted you to start, it doesn’t take long to develop a substance use disorder (SUD) that dramatically impacts your life and health. Suddenly, the problems that led you to turn to drugs or alcohol seem minor compared to your addiction.

 

But for people in this scenario, getting sober may not be enough. The likelihood of relapse is high if you don’t find alternate ways to handle your depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues. And this is where treatment for co-occurring disorders—when a patient is diagnosed with both addiction and a mental health disorder—must come in.

 

Adolescents are Particularly Vulnerable

 

Although substance use and addiction can happen at any time during a person’s life, substance use typically starts in adolescence. This is also when the first signs of mental illness commonly appear. 

 

During the transition to young adulthood (from age 18-25), adolescents need help navigating potentially stressful life changes, such as their education, living arrangement, work, or relationships. The brain is still developing through adolescence, and the circuits that control functions such as decision-making and impulse control are among the last to mature—making them more likely to turn to drugs or alcohol when they feel pressured or overwhelmed. 

 

Unfortunately, early drug use is a strong risk factor for later development of SUDs and may be a risk factor for mental illness as well. For example, frequent marijuana use during adolescence can increase the risk of psychosis in adulthood, specifically in individuals who carry a particular gene variant.

 

On the flip side, having a mental disorder in childhood or adolescence can increase a person’s risk of developing a SUD later in life. Research shows that young people tend to develop internalizing disorders (such as depression or anxiety) prior to developing SUDs. It’s clear that both of these conditions play off one another making our nation’s youth more vulnerable to future problems.

 

Why SUDs and Mental Health Disorders Occur Together

 

More than one of every four adults living with serious mental health disorders also has a SUD. Some people with mental health disorders misuse drugs or alcohol as a form of self-medication to improve the symptoms they are experiencing. Mental health disorders and SUDs also share many underlying causes, such as changes in brain composition, genetic vulnerabilities, and early exposure to stress or trauma. 

 

SUDs occur more frequently with certain mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and personality disorders. For example, it’s easy to understand why people who suffer from depression may use drugs or alcohol to numb their feelings. Sadness and grief are normal human emotions, and we all experience them from time to time, but clinical depression is something far worse. 

 

People who live under the dark cloud of depression feel overwhelming sadness and hopelessness. They have little to no energy, and they have no interest in doing things they used to enjoy. Using drugs or alcohol floods your brain with temporary chemicals that produce feelings of pleasure and euphoria. Suddenly, they have energy and feel happy again. But depression is a known side effect of substance abuse, and these effects eventually wear off, leaving the person feeling worse than they did before. It’s a vicious cycle that rapidly leads to addiction.

 

Anxiety and addiction go hand in hand as well. Approximately 40 million Americans struggle with anxiety, including social anxiety and panic disorder. Some people only feel anxious in certain situations, while others live in a constant state of worry, panic, and fear. Much like depression, people with anxiety may turn to drugs or alcohol to mask their feelings, and these feelings return as soon as the effects of the drugs or alcohol wear off, leaving them vulnerable to addiction.

 

Treating Both Disorders

 

The best treatment for co-occurring disorders is when a person receives care for both their diagnosed mental health disorder and substance abuse. Thankfully, the notion that “you can’t treat your depression because you are also drinking” is outdated. Current thinking requires that both issues be addressed. 

 

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), people with co-occurring disorders increase their likelihood of treatment success when both conditions are addressed simultaneously.

 

Help Is Waiting for You or Your Loved One

 

When it comes to treating co-occurring disorders, it’s especially important to help the individual find ways to combat depressive or anxious feelings without relying on substances. The Kimberly Center teaches holistic methods of addiction and mental health management—a healthy diet, plenty of exercise, ongoing therapeutic support, and mindfulness are all proven methods of reducing mental health symptoms that provide long-lasting solutions. 

 

If you or your loved one is struggling with addiction, and has either been diagnosed with depression or anxiety or is exhibiting symptoms, contact us at 855-452-3683 today to learn more about our programs and how we can help you overcome co-occurring disorders.

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