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How Addiction Stunts Emotional Growth

Some of the more obvious symptoms of addiction are disruptions to an individual’s external life, including their relationships, family, jobs, friends, and economic struggles. It is clear that drug and alcohol abuse damages a person’s overall health, but addiction also stunts internal factors like emotional growth and social development. When an adult is an addict, society still expects the individual to act a certain way and be responsible. Adults are supposed to be wiser and more aware of the consequences of their actions and their impact on other people. Unfortunately, most adult addicts make decisions that would not classify them as responsible adults. When adults are deep in their addiction, they usually do not weigh the consequences of their actions. With this mindset controlling their actions, individuals struggling with addiction live according to their emotional age, not their actual age. Not worrying about other people’s emotions, let alone their own, makes addicts emotionally unaware and unable to act their age.

Physical Age vs Emotional Age

What is the difference between emotional and physical age? Physical age is predictable and backed up by science. For example, general age can be classified through stepping stones like losing baby teeth, the age when your bones stop growing, and when women experience menstruation and menopause. Overall, physical age is inevitable and will progress. Emotional age, on the other hand, is not guaranteed to grow.

Emotional age is dependent on the individual’s life experiences and responses to situations and the consequences of their actions. As with all individuals, emotions are unpredictable and adjustable. Individuals who abuse drugs or alcohol, however, are at risk for stunting their emotional growth because they continue with harmful behavior and immature and unacceptable actions. For most addicted individuals, emotional upset stems from their childhood. Many begin to use drugs or alcohol to mask their problems and avoid dealing with difficult situations upfront. This makes it more difficult for addicted people to handle the circumstances of their actions and leaves their emotional growth stuck in the same spot as when they started using toxic substances.

Effects of Drugs on Brain Development

Why do adult addicted people act like teenagers? Why does brain development stop when using drugs and alcohol? We are all familiar with rebellious teenage behavior, from mood swings to risk-taking. The most notorious question that addicted people and teenagers both receive is “Why would you do that?” Research throughout the years has demonstrated that the teenage years are the formative years of brain development and play a significant role in shaping how a person interacts in the world. Therefore there is a biological reason why teenagers and addicted people—whose development has often halted at this stage when they begin using substances—act the way they do. This science of brain development reveals why teenagers are so responsive to new experiences and external influences, both good and bad. Overall, it seems clear that preventing and delaying substance use during this time in life is critically important to long-term health and emotional stability.

The adolescent brain develops unevenly from early adolescence through the late twenties. The parts of the brain that develop first are those that control physical activity (cerebellum), emotion (amygdala), and motivation (nucleus accumbens). The prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for impulse control, more reasoned thought, and good judgment, develops later. If an individual begins using addictive substances during adolescence, the fraction of the prefrontal cortex function that has developed is impaired with substance use, and what has not fully developed contributes to further impulsivity. The prefrontal cortex develops last. As a result, it is easier to understand how individuals without a fully developed prefrontal cortex are driven by emotion, excitement, and short-term reward. This leads to unpredictable and sometimes risky behavior.

This pattern of brain development helps explain some common traits of teen behavior, as well as addicted individuals. Some of these behaviors include:

  • Difficulty holding back or controlling emotions
  • A preference for high excitement, exploration, and new activities
  • Inadequate planning and limited judgment
  • More risky, impulsive behaviors

Developing brains are also more susceptible to damage from outside influences than the brains of adults. This means substance use during the teen years creates a more distinct risk for immediate and lasting harm. Effects of substance use on the developing brain occur when substances are used to fulfill emotional needs and to feel good. This is an interference with the body’s development of its natural reward system.

The brain is made up of millions and millions of nerve cells. Nerves control everything in the body, not just physical actions, but also what an individual thinks and does. Nerves carry this out by sending electrical signals throughout the body. The signals get passed from nerve to nerve by neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers of the body. Many of the signals that neurotransmitters send cause feelings of satisfaction or pleasure.

How Does Addiction Start?

The main neurotransmitter controlling pleasurable messages is called dopamine. Drugs and alcohol overload the brain with dopamine, causing the reward system to send excess “feel-good” signals. In response, the brain tries to compensate by letting fewer of the naturally occurring feel-good signals through. As time goes on, the brain needs more and more of the addictive substance to feel these positive effects. Eventually, the brain is unable to feel pleasure naturally. This build-up of artificial dopamine and lack of natural pleasure is known as tolerance.

Unfortunately, the effects of drugs and alcohol on the brain do not just stop when the substance wears off. When an addicted person stops taking a substance, dopamine levels remain low for some time. This is why people in early recovery often feel down and unable to experience natural pleasures in life. The brain will eventually restore the dopamine balance by itself, but it does take time and may result in the individual unable to connect with people in the same way that they used to in the past. The time to recover the brain’s natural sources of pleasure can take anywhere from hours to days to months, depending on the substance, the length and amount of use, and the person.

Addiction and Emotional Immaturity

For individuals who begin to use drugs and drink alcohol at a young age, it becomes obvious to those around them that the addicted person does not connect emotionally with those of the same physical age. For example, if a 28-year-old man began abusing alcohol at 15 years old, others around him may comment that he acts like a rebellious teen instead of a grown man, and is not in the same stage of life as peers his age.

What this looks like for the emotionally stunted addict is often an unstable lifestyle. Such individuals will frequently bounce from home to home, never really having or wanting a stable lifestyle or committing to any place or any person. Other characteristics of these individuals include impulsivity, a lack of financial resources, a long list of short-lived jobs, and serious relationship issues, such as an extreme inability to commit.

These individuals have spent years blocking out emotions and making mistakes due to drug and alcohol addiction. Such individuals are not able to live in reality. In fact, their substance use throughout the years helped these individuals block out reality. This often means understanding the whole world from a teenage point of view because that is when they began abusing drugs or alcohol. This viewpoint, combined with learning to survive with an addiction, results in an “in-the-moment” lifestyle. Individuals in active addiction do not “run the tape through,” a phrase we use at Boardwalk Recovery Center to explain the act of considering the consequences of actions. Emotionally stable people consider the consequences of their actions and “play the tape through” their decisions. When emotionally immature individuals live day-to-day in survival mode, their emotional growth takes a back seat.

Any real problem that the individual has pushed aside still remains once the individual becomes sober. This makes it all the more difficult for those in recovery to handle these emotions, especially when situations in sobriety arise.

Emotional Growth Through Addiction Treatment

Luckily, it is possible to emotionally “age” through addiction treatment. At Boardwalk Recovery Center and other substance abuse and addiction treatment centers, professionals help individuals face their reality and learn the strategies they need to face the world again as an adult. Viewing their problems in a mature manner is what helps people grow. No matter what problems may come, individuals will learn that they can deal with them without relying on drugs and alcohol.

Boardwalk Recovery Center is a place to learn all the life skills that the addicted individual left behind once addiction took hold. Group and individual counseling, along with other kinds of therapy, can help to open an addict’s eyes and let their emotional age catch up to their physical age.

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