Getting High Is Really About Not Feeling Low

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white smoke blue sky downward spiral


We’ve described before how drugs can change the way the brain’s “reward system” works, so that a person has to use more of a drug to get the same high they experienced the first time. These changes also make them less able to enjoy other things that used to make them feel good—like friends, food, sports, and other activities.

That’s only part of the drugs-and-brain story, though.

Downward spiral

With drug use, other brain changes occur that lead a person to feel depressed and anxious. When that happens, the person may want to use the drug again—just so they can escape the bad feelings the drug helped cause.

In short, people who use a drug over and over may not be trying to get high. They may be trying to escape feeling very low, the state called withdrawal.

A broken video game

NIDA’s Director, Dr. Nora D. Volkow, compares this painful situation to a broken video game. When a person has a substance use disorder, they want to be free of the drug, but their whole world has become “like a threatening virtual environment.” Drugs, and reminders of drug use, are like threats “around every corner.”

However, the person is playing the video game “with a broken controller.” No matter how hard they try to avoid the temptation to use the drug again, “their game-world avatar heads straight for the drug” that will keep the downward spiral going.

The good news is that as researchers discover more about what drugs do to the brain, they’re learning more about effective treatments for addiction—and how to prevent it from happening in the first place. Of course, the best way to prevent addiction is to avoid using drugs to begin with.

Are there effective treatments for drug addiction? Find out here.

Find Help Near You

Use the SAMHSA Treatment Locator to find substance use or other mental health services in your area. If you are in an emergency situation, this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: call 1-800-273-TALK, or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member.

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