Understanding Polysubstance Dependence

Sometimes, a person doesn’t have just one “drug of choice.” They may flip between substances, and bounce around. If they’re not constantly using one specific drug, are they still addicted? They could be. It’s called “polysubstance dependence,” and the term refers to people addicted to intoxication, with no particular substance of choice. The condition often interferes with the person’s physical and emotional health, and causes issues that impede their ability to enjoy life and function productively. Not a great deal is known about the epidemiology of polysubstance dependence, but all research indicates that early intervention and effective treatment will help mitigate its long-term risks.

Identifying Polysubstance Dependence

To be diagnosed with polysubstance dependence, the individual must not only regularly use three or more drugs in excess, but also not prefer using one substance over another. The individual must also fit three of the following criteria for a period of at least 12 months:

  • They have built a tolerance to different substances and need more and more of the drug to feel its effects
  • They experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking drugs, which disappear when they begin using again
  • They are unable to control their drug use, despite recurrent health problems and/or a genuine desire to get sober
  • They dedicate much of their time and energy to chasing their next high and recovering from being intoxicated
  • They cease spending time with sober friends and family members in favor of being around others who are equally dedicated to using drugs

It’s important to note that when a patient has been struggling with chronic physical and psychological addiction to multiple substances, they will likely be diagnosed with drug addiction rather than polysubstance dependence. ‘Dependence’ refers to when a patient has built up a tolerance to the substance and experiences withdrawal symptoms, while ‘abuse’ indicates long-term health effects and risk-taking behavior.

Most Common Drugs Among Polysubstance Dependence

Although people with polysubstance dependence may take any combination of three drugs, alcohol is one of the primary substances in most cases. In fact, the three most common drugs of choice for patients with polysubstance dependence include alcohol, heroin, and cocaine. But the combinations of substances can be diverse, and include hallucinogens, alcohol, stimulants, depressants, and inhalants. Some research shows that the longer individuals rely on a particular drug, the higher their chances of using a second or a third.

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Treating Polysubstance Dependence

Fortunately, early intervention and comprehensive treatment can make the difference in mitigating the long-term risks associated with polysubstance dependence, including overdose, health problems, and accidental death.

Polysubstance dependence is treated just like any other drug addiction. And like other forms of substance abuse, various types of therapy have been shown to help, including:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, helps addicts alter their thinking and behavior. It assists them in developing plans to avoid the situations that make them want to use drugs in the first place, as well as helping them cope with feelings of temptation. CBT can take place in individual or group settings.
  • Contingency management. In contingency management, therapists help patients set abstinence goals. Patients plan ways to celebrate their success when they reach these goals.
  • Family therapy and support groups. These types of groups allow addicts and their family membersto talk about how they’ve been affected by drug abuse. Addicts may attend the same groups as their families, or go separately.

Recent estimates report that nearly one percent of the U.S. population is struggling with polysubstance disorder—a number that is on the rise. If you believe that your loved one is counted in that number, reach out for help today.

If you have any questions about polysubstance dependence or other addiction issues, please contact us today. We can provide information to help you or your loved one begin the healing process.