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Psychological Effects of Drug Abuse

By Rhiannon Clouse ; Updated August 14, 2017

Drug abuse can occur in many forms. Illegal drugs can be abused, as can legally prescribed or over-the-counter drugs. According to MedlinePlus, drug abuse is any improper use of medication that is ongoing for at least a year and has negative consequences for the abuser. The medical text "Addiction Medicine: An Evidence-Based Handbook" explains that drugs with rapid onset and high intensity of effect have greater potential for abuse.

Drugs and the Brain

The "Clinical Textbook of Addictive Disorders" explains that drugs of abuse are thought to act on a brain circuit called the limbic system. This pathway pairs activities that are crucial to individual or species survival, such as eating or sex, with pleasant feelings of reward. The feelings of reward are meant to reinforce or motivate the individual to partake in the activity again. Biochemically, the pleasant feelings are the result of dopamine release in a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens.

Brain Changes

The National Institute on Drug Abuse explains that chronic drug abuse changes the way brain cells respond to the activity of dopamine. This requires drug abusers to increase their dosage of a drug in order to experience euphoric and pleasurable feelings. The cycle continues until the brain is so desensitized to dopamine that the user feels flat and lifeless, unable to experience any pleasure at all.

Fear of Withdrawal

The "Clinical Textbook of Addictive Disorders" explains that when a drug is abused over a long period of time, the nervous system and body must adjust so that the organs can continue to function normally. The adjustments made by the cells and tissues in response to chronic drug use lead to physical dependence. Because normal function is now dependent on the presence of the drug, the body responds with uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms when the drug is discontinued. Many people who abuse drugs continue to do so in order to avoid withdrawal symptoms.


For some people, continued drug abuse will lead to addiction. Compulsive drug-seeking behavior, intense cravings and loss of control over drug use are all symptoms of addiction, according to the "Clinical Textbook of Addictive Disorders." People who suffer from drug addiction will continue using drugs despite negative consequences, such as job loss or family conflict.


Drug abuse is a serious but preventable problem, explains the National Institute on Drug Abuse. It is important for parents to talk to their children about the risks and consequences of drug abuse and to model appropriate behavior. Additionally, there are several resources available to help educators and community organizations to spread the anti-drug message.

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