By now, as a society, we are all well aware of the Opioid Crisis. We know that heroin has been killing an entire generation of individuals. None of this is any surprise to us. What may be a surprise is why so many are getting addicted to heroin in the first place. We may be asking ourselves why we continue to see people get drawn into heroin addiction and find it extremely difficult or nearly impossible to stop. We might find ourselves wondering, why is this happening? What makes heroin so addictive if we know that it’s dangerous?
Heroin and the Brain
When used, heroin enters the brain rapidly and binds to what’s called opioid receptors. This binding causes an immediate stop of any kind of pain experience and produces an immense sense of pleasure. When there is no longer any heroin present in the body, the opioid receptors are then empty, causing the pain sensations to return. Because of this, an individual may want to use more opioids in an attempt to get rid of the pain or feel that sense of euphoria again. If this cycle is continued, the brain essentially ‘forgets’ how to relieve pain on it’s own, thus becoming physically dependent on the substance in order to feel relief.
Not only does heroin relieve any sort of physical pain that someone may be experiencing, it’s also a way to self-medicate any emotional or psychological pain or discomfort that someone may be feeling. Whether someone is struggling with mental health, depression, grief, trauma, or anything else that may be psychologically difficult, some people choose to turn to self-medicating or using illicit substances to find some relief from their experiences. Continuing to use heroin to feel relief will eventually lead to psychological dependence on the substance in addition to physical dependence.
Tolerance and Withdrawal
When someone is using heroin consistently over a period of time, they will develop a tolerance to the drug. This means, that in order to experience the same euphoria that they used to experience when they first started, they will attempt to use more of the drug in order to feel that. When the brain stops responding in ways that it used to, people start to use more. When a person is not using the amount of heroin that they’re used to using, their body will begin to experience detox symptoms. As a result of these uncomfortable symptoms, the person will often do whatever they can to seek out more of the drug in order to feel better and avoid withdrawal. For more about heroin withdrawal see previous blog here.
Prolonged heroin use makes it impossible for those using to feel organic happiness. What may have started out as a desire for immediate relief then turns into dependence to just feel somewhat okay. Without the substance, the person’s brain and body can no longer function in a way that relieves pain (emotional or physical) or experiences pleasure. What used to give them pleasure does not any more. Heroin is one of the strongest drugs out there, and once introduced to the brain and body it is very difficult for people to discontinue use. Abruptly stopping the use of heroin causes very severe and significant withdrawal effects that make the person feel like they need to keep using. Although it feels impossible at times to most people that are using heroin, it is possible to effectively detox from heroin and to remain abstinent. Doing this is alone is impossible and not advised to try, especially because the withdrawal process requires medical monitoring for stabilization. If you or someone you know are addicted to heroin, understand that your experiences with the addiction are very real and valid, but it is possible to stop if you have the appropriate help and support in place.