What Are the Mental Effects of Opioid Addiction?

Opioids are a class of drugs with chemical structures similar to those found in Opium and attach to the same mu-Opioid receptors in the brain. As such, the abuse of prescription Opioids like Oxycodone will result in brain and body damage similar to Heroin. The chronic abuse of all Opioids causes changes in brain pathways, including the reward center, responsible for the formation of drug-taking behavior. The mental effects of Opioid addiction stem from these changes.

When Opioids enter the brain, no matter how the drug was taken, they bind to certain receptors in the brain involved in regulating physical systems (such as regulating heart and breathing rates), as well as mental ones. The immediate mental effects of Opioid abuse are characterized by a sense of euphoria or pleasure, also known as the drugs’ “high.” Hallucinations may also be among the immediate mental effects of Opioids in some people.

In a relatively short period of time, the brain can become accustomed to the changes caused by Opioid abuse. Eventually, the body will come to fully rely on the abuse of Opioids to function normally. Insomnia is a common mental effect, but others can include “clouded” mental functioning or impaired reasoning skills.

Long-term Mental Effects of Opioid Addiction

Opioids are known to be among the most addictive substances on Earth due to the difficult-to-reverse changes they make in the brain. Dopamine released by the reward system while abusing Opioids is the primary force behind addiction. Additionally, research now shows a notable loss of white matter in the brain. In the long-term, decision-making and the ability to control one’s behavior or responses to stressors may be impaired.

Other long-term, mental effects of Opioid addiction include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Drug cravings
  • Fatigue
  • Inability to feel pleasure
  • Insomnia
  • Suicidal thoughts

In particular, drug cravings are responsible for a range of behaviors that can seem uncontrollable to the individual suffering from addiction. These mental changes can severely affect behaviors necessary for a fully-functioning life. For instance, drug cravings may lead someone to participate in risky or criminal behaviors to secure more drugs. Selling drugs, prostitution, and stealing are some examples of drug-seeking behavior. People with an Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) may engage in these behaviors despite the obvious detriment to their health and well-being.

Opioid Addiction, Depression, and Mental Illness

The Mental Effects Of Opioid Addiction Often Need To Be Treated With Professional TherapyMany people suffering from addiction also experience mental illnesses (such as antisocial personality disorder and depression). The relationship between addiction and depression is “bi-directional,” or one disorder increases the risk of developing the other. One study found that 10% of patients with an Opioid prescription will develop depression after entering treatment for pain relief (none had a prior diagnosis of depression). Some recent research suggests that hormonal and dopamine interference caused by Opioids plays a part in developing depression. Likewise, people with depression may not be able to feel the full effects of some prescription Opioids, causing them to take bigger doses.

Some mental symptoms of depression overlap those of Opioid addiction, including:

  • Altered mood and irritability
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Changes in appetite
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feelings of guilt or despair
  • Losing interest in hobbies
  • Low energy
  • Suicidal thoughts

When depression goes untreated, recovering from addiction can be incredibly challenging. Heroin abuse, especially, is linked to suicidal thoughts and attempts. Among those who suffer from a Heroin Use Disorder, 35% fall victim to death by suicide. Subsequently, treatment for addiction and co-morbid mental illnesses should include medically-supervised detox and a drug rehab program that employs addiction treatment medications and research-backed therapies (such as cognitive behavioral therapy).