The Emotional Impact of Drug Addiction

Drug addiction exacts an emotional toll on sufferers and their family members. Addiction grows in a bed of pre-existing emotional turmoil, and the feelings of anxiety, shame, guilt, and worthlessness that increase risk for addiction will only become worse as the chemical dependency deepens. Drug abuse also creates fresh emotional complications for everyone it affects. Emotional pain and disruption is inevitable for drug addicts and their loved ones, and only through treatment and recovery can families escape the pernicious effects of chemical dependency.

Drug addiction is a physical disorder with profound emotional ramifications and dimensions. More than seven million Americans are dependent on some type of illicit drug or misused medication, and the effects of their addiction are like ripples in a pond, spreading outward to cause pain and misery for everyone in the addict’s social and family circles.

The emotional devastation of drug addiction is experienced most directly and acutely by addicts themselves. But spouses, children, parents, grandparents, siblings, extended family members, and close friends also feel addiction’s impact, and their emotional reactions range across a broad landscape of pain, stress, and discouragement.

The Emotional Risk Factors of Drug Addiction


Oftentimes, people are driven to excessive use and abuse of drugs by a desire to escape or forget. They may have suffered some type of trauma in the past, or may be undergoing some trauma in the present, that leaves them plagued by feelings of stress and anxiety.

Some of the common emotional risk factors for drug addiction include:

  • Being subjected to physical, emotional, or sexual abuse in childhood
  • Exposure to distant or neglectful parenting styles
  • Multiple instances of being bullied
  • Being a victim of domestic abuse
  • Suffering through a natural disaster, possibly involving a loss of life
  • Losing a loved one to death, divorce, or desertion

People who’ve been through such experiences may feel guilt or shame if they somehow blame themselves for the abuse they suffered or the loss they experienced, or the circumstances they created that led to the emotional injuries.

Drug addiction can easily develop among people using illicit substances to numb their pre-existing emotional pain, but this is not a strategy that will work for long (if it works at all). Eventually, tolerance for the drug advances, and users have to take more and more of their substance of choice to experience the same effects—which is the primary reason why these substances are so addictive.

Another problem is that drugs themselves create fresh chemical imbalances in the brain—or reinforce the old ones—which can lead to increased emotional instability. The person may have initially turned to drugs to help them forget or suppress their memories and the feelings of anxiety or worthlessness that accompany them. But once someone develops a drug abuse problem, they can experience dramatic mood swings that cause buried feelings of low self-esteem and low self-confidence to come bubbling to the surface, often with overwhelming intensity.

About 40 percent of people with substance use disorders also suffer from at least one form of mental illness (the percentages may be higher with some drugs). Mood and anxiety disorders are especially common among drug addicts, and the turbulent or disabling emotions they produce explain why many sufferers choose to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol.

Struggling with Drug Addiction?

Struggling with Drug Addiction?

Recovery is Possible

The Emotional Life of the Drug Addict


When someone becomes addicted to any type of illicit drug, or to prescription medications they’ve misused, it plays havoc with their emotional stability. They may have turned to drugs to help them escape or forget troubling feelings, but their dependency has its own unique impact on their emotional wellbeing.

Some of the emotional reactions created by substance abuse include:

  • Guilt. Denial aside, addicts are usually aware of the stress and heartache their behavior causes for their loved ones, and their guilt at not being able to stop using can be overwhelming. Unfortunately, guilt and shame chip away at a person’s self-esteem, and a lack of self-esteem can make it more difficult for addicts to find the courage to quit using drugs.
  • Fear. People with drug addictions fear the stigma of exposure, and the possible loss of relationships, employment, and sense of personal dignity that can result from others discovering the truth. Ultimately, their greatest fear is that they’ll lose everything they value most, including their own health and freedom.
  • Helplessness. Most drug addicts try to quit on their own many times but are unable to make sobriety stick. After a while they begin to feel helpless against their addiction, which is yet another emotion that damages their self-esteem and feelings of personal power.
  • Depression. Drug abuse haunts those it affects. It prevents them from achieving their goals, meeting their personal responsibilities, and controlling their fate. All of this can contribute to feelings of deep sadness and depression, and the changes in the brain caused by drug abuse can bring on or reinforce depression as well.
  • Anger. Drug addicts are angry at themselves for their behavior, angry at others who try to confront them about that behavior, and angry at the world for abandoning them and leaving them without hope for a better future.
  • Resignation. At a certain point, many drug addicts simply give up on themselves and their lives. This is an especially perilous stage of addiction, and it is imperative that people who’ve reached these depths get some kind of help quickly, before they drown in their own despair.

The Effect of Drug Addiction on Family and Friends


As they track the descent of their loved one into drug addiction, family members and friends often experience the same emotions as the addict: anger, fear, guilt, helplessness, depression, and resignation. Addiction is an anchor on the families it affects, leaving them adrift in hostile and unfamiliar seas with safe land nowhere in sight.

Uncertainty about the future is another emotion experienced by the loved ones of drug addicts, and that uncertainty can at times be difficult to endure. Drug addiction can be a fatal illness, and people who live with or love drug addicts can never really be sure about what news the next phone call or knock at the door will bring. Living with an addict produces constant insecurity, accompanied by anxiety that never fully relents.

Some drug addicts can become emotionally or physically hostile while under the influence, and it can be highly stressful—or even dangerous—for spouses or children who must deal with that explosive and unpredictable temperament. Drug addicts can sometimes become involved with unsavory people, and having these individuals around can add to the stress and fear loved ones are already experiencing.

The damage done by drug addiction can be subtle yet pervasive. The addiction distorts everyone’s life it touches, manipulating their emotions and crushing their hopes time and time again. For the family members and close friends of an addict, nothing will ever be the same as long as drugs continue to exert their pernicious influence.

Finding Hope in Treatment


Drug addiction can’t be wished away or banished by sheer willpower. Those who suffer from chemical dependency need trained, expert assistance from addiction specialists who rely on the latest in evidence-based medicine to treat this dangerous condition.

Inpatient treatment for addiction, or intensive outpatient treatment for those who cannot choose the inpatient option, are the best options for people whose lives have been turned inside-out by drug abuse. In the treatment center environment, everyone is working together to achieve the same goals, rallying behind methods with a proven track record of success. During rehab, the messages are positive and hopeful, as the recovering addict is invited to imagine and actualize a future free from the corrosive and hazardous effects of drugs.

Therapy in treatment will address the underlying emotional and psychological causes of addiction, which tend to lose their influence once they are brought out into the open and dealt with honestly. During therapy recovering addicts will also learn how to recognize the triggers that support their drug abuse and the temptations that undermine their sobriety, and doing so can help them immensely as they strive to develop strategies for resisting the inner voice of their addiction.

In many instances, inpatient treatment will include family therapy sessions that allow loved ones to participate in the recovery process, while also letting them speak about their feelings and the impact of addiction on their lives. The idea in family therapy is not to evoke guilt or shame in the recovering addict (these emotions are never productive) but to facilitate good communication, mutual respect, and more constructive family dynamics moving forward.

Outside of therapy and after the end of formal treatment, addicts can benefit from involvement in 12-step peer groups like Narcotics Anonymous, which connect them with others undergoing the same struggle. Meanwhile, family members can find support by attending meetings of Nar-anon (or similar groups), which offer emotional and moral support for the loved ones of addicts throughout the ongoing recovery period.

In every city and state help is available for addicts and their loved ones, so no one who has suffered the emotional impact of drug abuse should have to go through it alone.