Understanding substance dependency and its effect on your physiological and psychological health.

A substance dependency first starts as a habit and a habit is formed when we do something over a prolonged period of time.


A substance dependency develops in the exact same way but this time is not only psychological, it becomes physical as well. When you’re taking something for a very long period of time, it affects both your physical and psychological health because your mind and body think that when you take a substance you feel better as it may improve your mood or give your body relief from pain and more energy or mobility to do something. We need to delve into how substance dependency works and how it impacts our body and mind.


The brain is built from two components: from our genes and our environment. A human brain is unique, there is no other like it in the world. Our personal experiences are also unique to us because we process them in a certain way. For example, imagine going to a party with a friend, you drink the same beverages, you speak to the same people, you listen to the same music but when you come out from that party your experiences and opinions about the party are quite different. These experiences both genetic and environmental cause physical changes in the brain and guide our behaviours as well.


When we experience things in life, our brain and its chemical function changes. Whatever we see, feel, touch, smell and listen are stored as chemical substances in our brain and small molecules called neurotransmitters travel throughout our body sending signals and that is how our body communicates with our emotions and how we analyse information before they enter our brain. When the signals are disrupted through substances, our brain and body are disrupted as well. Sometimes we want to disrupt the signals on purpose because we want to let ‘our hair down’ when we go on a night out and we drink alcohol or we smoke but when is done for a prolonged period of time, our brain gets used to these changes, the chemical function changes and adapts to a new norm.


Because of us saying to our brain alcohol makes us feel good and we laugh, then the brain thinks that in order for us to laugh and feel good we need to drink more. The more we drink the more the body adapts and when we stop drinking our body and brain go through chemical changes and we don’t feel well because drinking alcohol makes the neurotransmitters work properly. When we stop, the neurotransmitters send signals to the body causing pain, nausea, vomiting, emotional disruption to name a few and ask the brain for more alcohol in order to function again properly. In other words, the more a substance is taken the body becomes more tolerant and to achieve an effect the substance needs to be taken more often. This causes impulsiveness or compulsion that drives you back to the substance because you trained your brain that’s what it needs to cope.


The same applies to emotional disturbances as well. Some people start taking substances to avoid an experience or situation they have been or going through. It may be a divorce or exposure to terminal illness. Some physical changes that chemical imbalances in the brain can bring are anxiousness, depression, panic attacks. Mood changes can also be caused by prolonged period of sadness or joyousness or both and sometimes because mood changes are carried out longer than needed and occasionally without even cause. Depression though is more than just an illness. It can cause physical symptoms such as stomach pain, fast heartbeat, headaches and it needs drug and holistic management to balance the chemical changes in the brain and ease off the symptoms.


When you ask the brain to avoid situations instead of processing them and you take substances to numb physiological or emotional pain, you teach the brain that every time you are going through a similar situation, substances are the only option to help you. As mentioned above, the more you take substances the more changes are going through in your brain and physiology.


Before we discuss the stages of change it is important to seek medical advise. Cutting out substances and going “cold turkey” is not an option as the brain and neurotransmitters need to adjust to new norms all the time. Medical supervision is needed and willpower alone will not bring you out of the situation. You need to figure out what needs changing and how to change.


Stages of change:


1. Pre-contemplative:


In this stage a person adopts a behaviour that is unknown to them due to personal experiences that they went through. In order to feel better about what they’re doing, they defend themselves and it can become confusing between what they are doing and want and what they really want. 


2. Contemplative:


In this stage a person affected by a substance understands that there is a problem with the behaviour they adopted but they are reluctant to do anything about it because most probably they got used to doing what they are doing and they don’t know how to get out of it or they find the particular behaviour enjoyable. This stage is where relatives can get involved and it can create psychological problems for that person.


3. Preparing:


In this stage the person affected wants to quit their undesirable behaviour, seeks help and makes an effort to change. This stage is the most crucial for the person to find out if it’s worth getting out of his situation or not.


4. Action:


In this stage the person affected is trying different approaches to stop once and for all what they’re doing and can relapse many times before a goal is achieved. The support from family and friends is important and being open about what their trying to do is necessary to accomplish their goal.


5. Maintenance:


It can take a long time for someone to stop an unwanted behaviour and in this stage the person affected has succeeded to break their bad habit. If they relapse in this phase, they see it as a blip and they are able to move on with their lives as if nothing happened. Sometimes though they can encounter another setback in life and go back to stage.


6. Termination:


In this stage the person affected has reached their goal and sees no value in going back. He understands how strong he or she can be without their prior behaviour.


When going through stages 3 and 4, people experience many incidents at that point in their lives and it causes them to endure these stages feeling sadness or joy. People either learn from these incidents and mature or they rebel and can then fall in a downward spiral. After a bad experience, imbalances in the brain appear and people may concentrate in one area of their life ensuring that everyone else is fine as opposed to satisfying and filling all aspects of their own lives, rebuilding themselves and mending from this experience.


Due to concentrating in one area of their life, i.e. money, intimacy, love etc., they experience a sense of feeling “let down” when someone else becomes more successful. They become miserable and compare themselves to others to measure their happiness. They may think, “What have I done in my life to be proud of”, or “Why am I always so unlucky”, and so on… Instead of concentrating on how to repair their life and to correct their imbalances, they focus on how to score points against others and the kind of ‘fix’ they need to forget their pain.


When they start addressing obstructive behaviours and understanding why the imbalances occur, (maybe because of feeling resentful, guilty, suppressed and other emotions) they will seek advice from family, friends or therapists to come out of their despair. During this stage, they prepare themselves to change but depending on what family or the therapist says, it can send the person back to feeling hopeless or to gain confidence in their ability to make the right choices and to discover their own personal value judgements.


Maslow, an American Psychologist, said that in order for a person to feel content and to avoid “inner demons” or lack of confidence, they must focus on all aspects of life and to fulfil all areas. If an area of life is not contemplated, then the person can experience a downfall with unwanted behaviours and negative habits. They can feel under attack because their life will be out of balance and the areas that they are successful at, will be undermined. 


A self-actualising person is someone who accesses their full potential and has a high level of full self-acceptance despite having flaws, insecurities and personal issues. They are the sort of people who go after their dreams and don’t stop until they achieve their goals. They have “fire in their belly” from a young age and they know they will have a great life and mind. Self-actualised people live the life they desire and want according to their capabilities and desires and it is very rare for people to reach that state.

Most people become complacent in a job they don’t like purely because they get paid well, they can provide for their basic needs without accessing their full potential, and because they put their basic needs first and not necessarily their creativity and abilities.


Are you accessing all of your potential and abilities in your life? What do you think is missing and how would you envisage your life?




Elena Eleftheriadou is an Executive Coach and Integrative Therapist working with Healthcare Professionals with a purpose and passion to help them communicate more effectively, diminish stress and prevent burnout to improve their work-life balance.