Teenage life is filled with a steady stream of adventure. The flexible, ever-changing adolescent brains continue to soak up knowledge well into their mid-twenties much like a sponge. During their teens and early twenties, they experience their most formative years, sculpting their worldviews, personalities, attitudes, and mindsets. Along with all of the positive changes in the teenage mind also come situations where they will not always know how to navigate peer pressure, stress, risk, and many more complex challenges. This is right around the time potential substance misuse enters their social circle or personal interests. Teenagers are naturally curious and are bound to be faced with using drugs or alcohol at one point or another. What is it about the teenage mind that makes them more susceptible to use during adolescent years and how does drug use affect them in the long run?
The Adolescent Brain
Teens are often described as moody, impulsive, irresponsible, and rebellious, but this is more than just behavioral, it’s biological too. A young person’s brain can be split up into three main parts: the limbic system, the reward pathway, and the prefrontal cortex. The limbic system controls their emotions, mostly angst and tension. The reward pathway is the connection between the limbic and prefrontal cortex, mostly responsible for feeling pleasure and happiness. The prefrontal cortex is where higher functioning is located, effecting reasoning, logic, and rationality.
The prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to fully mature, making young people more prone to making unreasonable decisions. Impulses remain strong without much of an off-switch until later in life. Some teens are attracted to substance use because of the immediate high-reward it may offer, often underestimating some of the dangerous risks involved. The pathway that is motivated mostly by feelings of pleasure can often mislead young teens into confusing their emotions and rational thoughts.
Peer pressure is another driving factor that leads many teens to substance use, causing many to fear not “fitting in” with their friends if they choose to abstain from drugs. This kind of pressure sets off high levels of anxiety in the brain, making them worry that their potential social status and reputation is in danger if they choose not to partake. The feelings from peer pressure register emotionally in a teen’s brain instead of logically, causing many to make poor decisions.
With all of the confusing activity going on in a young person’s brain, it’s easy to see how many can fall into substance use without giving it too much thought. Though drug awareness programs in school offer many warnings and tools to say no, the reality is, many teens base their decisions on other factors that are not always the most rational or thought-out.
Drug effects on Adult Brain vs. Adolescent Brain
An adult’s brain cells are fully developed and covered with an essential fatty layer called myelin. The myelin coats the brain’s cells, protecting them while helping brain messages travel from neuron to neuron, much like electricity through a breaker. A teenager’s brain cells have not yet developed full layers of myelin, making these messages that are being sent much louder and more extreme. Sensations and emotions are felt more intensely in a teen’s brain, causing an influx of drug-induced dopamine to feel profoundly euphoric. While positive emotions are felt to a much higher degree, so are the negative ones. Feelings of fear, anxiety, and sadness can be just as potent. Drug use can cause this bounce back from powerful negative emotions to extreme positive emotions with every use, making an already chemically addictive substance even more dangerous.
How Drugs Affect Adolescents Long-term
The reward pathway part of a teen’s brain deals with things like motivation and incentive. When a young person uses addictive drugs, it can affect the reward-related chemicals in that part of the brain.. The release of dopamine caused by drugs can create a feeling of relaxation, relief, and even inexplicable happiness. While dopamine is present in the body without drugs, the drugs are causing the chemical to flood unnaturally.
When someone feels happy or is compelled to laugh this is the brain naturally maintaining the body’s overall state of being. This release isn’t random, it’s caused when the body is content, and all of the basic human needs are met. This is controlled by a human instinct to yearn for food, love, shelter, and other basic necessities. However, with addictive drugs, this kind of unnatural release of dopamine is particularly risky because it can begin to convince the brain that normal instinctive reasons to laugh or feel happy aren’t needed any longer now that the drug is providing them with that feeling. This could potentially lead a young person into neglecting themselves and their wellbeing. They will no longer be concerned about meeting their basic needs because the drugs can create a false sense of happiness. Continual drug use can severely damage the reward pathway, causing a multitude of problems along the way.
Short-term consequences will always come first and usually wreak havoc on a teen’s life, but the long-term psychological effects can be even more devastating. Aside from the social consequences, things like liver damage, heart problems, stunted growth, poor memory, impaired learning and emotional development, and a risk of mental health disorders are possible.
Prevention is Key
The best way to protect young people from the dangerous effects of addictive drugs is to implement a healthy support system to instill early prevention. Adolescence can be a difficult time, but the teenage brain is capable of learning right from wrong. While there are both external and biological factors that can lead someone to addiction, teaching them healthy habits early in childhood can help equip them with the tools to overcome things like peer pressure. Speaking to teens about how caving into the pressure to use drugs at a young age can set them back later in life is an excellent way to help dissuade them from experimentation. Making healthy decisions in regards to drug and alcohol use during their adolescence will give them many more rewards while growing up and adjusting to adulthood.
About the Author: Holly is the Digital Content Coordinator for MedMark Treatment Centers. She works to help spread awareness and end the stigma of addiction.