Understanding Brain Chemistry and How Substance Abuse Affects Personality and Behaviors

Drug addiction is difficult to overcome.  But, casual drug use and drug addiction are not just a problem from an addiction standpoint, drug use can actually change the chemistry of the brain.  Because drugs are a chemical, they create a chemical dependency in the brain when used regularly.  As the chemicals in the brain change, so does personality and behavior.  Changes in personality and behavior can often be one of the first signs of drug addiction or dependency so knowing what to watch for is important.

To understand how drugs affect the brain and change personality and behavior, you have to first understand how the brain works.  The National Institute of Drug Abuse explains how the brain works and how drugs interfere with normal brain behavior, “The brain is a communications center consisting of billions of neurons, or nerve cells. Networks of neurons pass messages back and forth among different structures within the brain, the spinal cord, and nerves in the rest of the body (the peripheral nervous system). These nerve networks coordinate and regulate everything we feel, think, and do…Drugs are chemicals that affect the brain by tapping into its communication system and interfering with the way neurons normally send, receive, and process information. Some drugs, such as marijuana and heroin, can activate neurons because their chemical structure mimics that of a natural neurotransmitter. This similarity in structure “fools” receptors and allows the drugs to attach onto and activate the neurons. Although these drugs mimic the brain’s own chemicals, they don’t activate neurons in the same way as a natural neurotransmitter, and they lead to abnormal messages being transmitted through the network. Other drugs, such as amphetamine or cocaine, can cause the neurons to release abnormally large amounts of natural neurotransmitters or prevent the normal recycling of these brain chemicals. This disruption produces a greatly amplified message, ultimately disrupting communication channels.”

Different drugs can cause different reactions in the brain and thus create unique personality and behavior changes.  First, cocaine users often experience severe mood swings, erratic behavior, impulsivity, manic behaviors, high energy, aggression, and dishonest/secretive behavior.  Meth users tend to exhibit behaviors such as agitation and aggression, lack of empathy, depression, avoidance of others, impulsivity, and selfish behavior.  Marijuana users tend to behave irresponsibly, have difficulty with short-term memory, and may have symptoms of depression occasionally.  It can be very hard and frustrating to deal with a changed personality and strange behaviors in a loved one or friend.  But, if you believe someone you know is exhibiting these behaviors, it may be the sign of a drug addiction or dependency.  Fortunately, while those chemical changes do affect personality and behavior, by seeking treatment and recovery, the personality of your friend or loved one can return as the brain heals.

Marijuana may be an illegal drug in many states but it is also a very commonly used drug in the United States.  While other drugs are known for their addictive properties and harsh side effects, marijuana is commonly thought to be a “harmless” recreational drug.  Further, because it has been legalized in many states, access and use has grown significantly.  Though many see marijuana use as harmless and having no long-term side-effects, the research says otherwise.

Though many people have their first experience with marijuana as a teenager, studies are now showing that marijuana can have lasting effects on the brain when used by teenagers.  The American Psychological Association points out how dramatic and lasting marijuana’s impact can be on the adolescent brain which is still growing and forming, “Heavy marijuana use in adolescence or early adulthood has been associated with a dismal set of life outcomes including poor school performance, higher dropout rates, increased welfare dependence, greater unemployment and lower life satisfaction… The team found that persistent marijuana use was linked to a decline in IQ, even after the researchers controlled for educational differences. The most persistent users — those who reported using the drug in three or more waves of the study — experienced a drop in neuropsychological functioning equivalent to about six IQ points (PNAS, 2012). “That’s in the same realm as what you’d see with lead exposure,” says Weiss. ‘It’s not a trifle.’”  The study notes that brains into their mid-20s could experience lasting effects from marijuana use.

Further, the THC that is in marijuana slows the communication between receptors in the brain which essentially and can cause short-term memory loss.  These side-effects can dramatically impact an individual’s ability to function in day to day life, maintain responsibilities such as a job, and can dramatically impact relationships.  Many studies are beginning to show that heavy marijuana use can also lead to long-term memory impairment.  To write off marijuana use and the effects of THC as being harmless is irresponsible and reductive.  If you are struggling with a drug addiction or marijuana dependency, seek help from an experienced addiction counselor who understands what you are going through.  At Diebold Behavioral Counseling, you will be met with a listening ear and absolutely no judgement.  We will help you address behavior patterns that may be impacting your marijuana dependency and help you find the support that you need to overcome your dependency. You can take the steps to stop using marijuana and optimize your long-term brain health.

In life, we all go through periods of emotional highs and lows.  During the winter, life tends to naturally slow down.  The days get shorter, the weather gets cold and sometimes dreary, and it makes you just want to curly up under the covers and stay there.  Though it is normal to go through peaks and valleys emotionally and mentally, if you experience symptoms of depression seasonally, you may have what is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a mood disorder that has the same symptoms as those of major depression:  reduced energy/low energy, weight gain, difficulty sleeping, desire to be alone, feeling agitated, increased appetite, thoughts of death or suicide, feeling hopeless or worthless, loss of interest in activities you enjoy.  Though it is unknown exactly what causes SAD, it is believed to be the result of a lack of access to bright light during the winter.  There is also a higher incidence of SAD the further you move away from the equator.  Also, although it occurs in both males and females, females are at a significantly increased risk of developing SAD.  One of the key contributors to SAD is serotonin.  In those diagnosed with SAD, it has often been observed that they have difficulty regulating serotonin levels and may have decreased levels of serotonin in winter months.  They may also have increased melatonin (regulates sleep patterns) and decreased Vitamin D.

If you have been experiencing symptoms of depression and are concerned you have SAD, or if you have recently been diagnosed with SAD, there are a variety of treatment options available.  Prescription medication and vitamin supplements may be prescribed as needed to help regulate serotonin and Vitamin D levels.  Additionally, many SAD patients have found that light therapy (increased exposure to bright light) has been helpful in alleviating symptoms of SAD.  And, one of the most important things that anyone should do when diagnosed with depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).  Therapy is an important part of relieving symptoms and finding healing from SAD.  PsychCentral reports on the research that supports the use of a combination of these treatments or CBT alone in combating SAD, “Early research has shown that CBT for seasonal affective disorder may be even more effective than light therapy (and doesn’t require the extensive time commitment as light boxes do). In this 2009 study, Rohan and colleagues compared SAD-tailored CBT to light therapy (along with a combination of both treatments and a wait-list condition). They found that CBT, light therapy and both CBT and light therapy were all effective in treating SAD. However, at the one-year followup, participants treated with CBT were doing much better than individuals in the light therapy condition. In secondary analyses, Rohan also controlled for ongoing treatment, and the CBT participants still fared better.”   Seek help to overcome Seasonal Affective Disorder from a trained and experienced CBT therapist, such as Diebold Behavioral Counseling.

Saying the words “I need help” is never easy, whether you feel ready to say them or not. We all experience struggles in life, emotional highs and lows, or other challenges that feel difficult. But, when those struggles and challenges begin to feel insurmountable or unmanageable, it may be time to seek the help of a behavioral health specialist. Just like you feel a sniffle or start to cough at the beginning of a cold, there are warning signs for your emotional and mental health that, when recognized, can help you determine whether or not it is time to seek professional help.


The type and frequency of the help you receive will vary significantly depending on your individual needs. Recognizing certain warning signs can help you determine whether or not you need professional behavioral therapy to better manage your health and life. Many might feel like their problems are not big enough to need behavioral counseling but, in fact, Huffington Post says more people have mental struggles and need counseling than you might think, “Everyone experiences periods of stress, sadness, grief and conflict, so when you’re feeling off it can be hard to know if it’s time to see a professional about the problem. And apparently, those who would benefit from some therapeutic intervention are not seeking it enough: While one in five American adults suffer from some form of mental illness, only about 46-65 percent with moderate-to-severe impairment are in treatment, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.”

Are your problems – whatever they might be – stopping your ability to function well in your day-to-day life or hindering your ability to feel good? Do you have intense and sometimes impulsive mood swings? Do you have common feelings of depression such as feeling sad, feeling down, or just feeling “blue” a lot of the time? Do you have excessive worry or anxiety that is sometimes irrational or unexplained? Have you experienced trauma – whether recently or in the past? Have you contemplated suicide? Do you use alcohol or drugs to help you manage any of the things above such as anxiety, sadness or trauma? Do you have excessive or irrational fears that impact your daily life? Have you withdrawn from your social life? Have you experienced changes in your sleep or eating habits? If you are experiencing any of these warning signs, or a combination of these warning signs, you would likely benefit from professional behavioral therapy. In seeking professional behavioral therapy, such as the behavioral therapy offered by Diebold Behavioral Therapy, it is important to know that your concerns and struggles will be met with a listening ear that is free of judgement. No matter how dark things can feel in the moment, there are ways and solutions to help you find the light. We will help our clients learn to process struggles and feelings with a variety of techniques that include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), as well as other venting processes. Behavioral therapy may feel like a frightening first step but it will be the first step in learning how to process feelings and manage struggles to live a more fulfilling and happy life.

Watching someone you love and care about in the throes of an addiction is incredibly difficult. It may bring up feelings of sadness, frustration, anger, fear and more. What will happen to that person if the addiction continues or worsens? What if that person’s addiction causes irreparable damage to your family, home, finances or life? Many people that have a friend or loved one struggling with addiction often experience both sadness and anger simultaneously but it is important to understand that there are many factors out of control that may be contributing to their addiction. Understanding this and getting educated about addiction will help you support a family member or friend going through addiction.
So often, it is incredibly hard for the non-addict to understand what the addict is “thinking.” Why would they continue to be addicted rather than seek help? Why can’t they just stop? Why can’t they see what they are doing is harmful to themselves and those around them? Don’t they care enough about their friends and family to stop? To understand addiction you must understand brain chemistry. There are three categories of addiction – use, abuse, and dependency. What starts out as use may slowly (or quickly) progress to abuse. And soon, abuse may become dependency. When an addict is in the stage of dependency, the brain has begun to change its biochemistry. Our brain’s function and thoughts release chemicals in our body. When we feel good and relaxed, it is because our body has released chemicals. When we feel fear and anger, our body releases chemicals that cause reactions in our body. As addiction and dependency continues on, particularly for long periods of time, the brain’s structure literally changes shape – holes where gray matter used to be. And those changes can dramatically impact decision making.
When supporting a family member or friend going through addiction, there are a few things you can do, or changes to your approach, that may help improve the situation and better support them to make changes in their lives. First, as previously mentioned, you must educate yourself on addiction. The more you know, the better equipped you will be to understand the situation, understand what might be contributing factors to the addiction, and better support your family member. Further, the more you know, the more likely you will be to have a compassionate approach to your interactions with them. So often, addiction is filled with shame, self-hatred, depression, and fear. When you are compassionate, and you encourage your family member to seek compassionate counseling, they will experience a judgement-free source of support that could give them the courage they need to make a change. As they seek professional behavioral therapy and addiction counseling, it may also be wise for you to seek counseling. A professional counselor will be able to provide you useful tools and a listening ear from an impartial position so that you can feel prepared to support your family member while they experience addiction counseling. For an experienced, knowledgeable, judgement-free addiction counselor in the Phoenix or Scottsdale area, contact Diebold Behavioral Therapy.

There are many topics that are easy to discuss with friends or loved ones, addiction is not typically one of them. While it may not be the easiest thing to bring up, the responsibility to do so may fall on your shoulders. Alcohol addiction can occur at any age or stage of life and there are often other contributing life-factors or psychological disorders that accompany it. Alcohol addiction can be tough to spot and may just look like casual “partying” at first for some. But casual partying can rapidly turn into something more – dependency. For others, the signs may be more apparent – lying, “needing it to relax”, blacking out, inability to stop, neglecting responsibilities, making dangerous choices while under the influence, and more. Your friend or loved one may even joke about it, make light of the situation, or completely insist there is no problem.

If you are concerned that your friend or loved one has an alcohol addiction it is important to approach the conversation without judgement and without shaming them. Though their addiction may sadden you, have caused emotional strain, or hurt you in some way, to successfully encourage them to seek help the best approach is to approach them from a loving perspective or – at a minimum – remain as neutral as possible. Their addiction and treatment is out of their control and beyond their ability which is why it is critical that they seek the help of a behavioral health professional. Addiction counseling is available for them and a good behavioral therapist will always approach treatment without any judgement. Always seek a behavioral therapist with experience and knowledge about addiction counseling because they will be familiar with the addictive process and the true impact of the addiction on the client as well as family, friends and their community. There are a variety of ways to treat alcohol addiction and the behavioral therapist, along with the input of the client, will determine what treatment plan is best. Options include Twelve Steps Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Rational Recovery (RR) – which is a secular discipline, or other forms of treatment and recovery. There is no one-size-fits-all approach because every person is unique and it is vital that the individual finds the right recovery program that they can stick with for the long haul.

If you are in the Scottsdale or Greater Phoenix area and you or someone you know needs a referral to a Behavioral Therapist with extensive experience in addiction counseling, Diebold Behavioral Counseling can help provide guidance and direct instruction on recovery from addiction to alcohol or other drugs. We have an addiction referral team in place that has a renowned DUI attorney, blood analysis expert and D.J. Diebold, a renowned behavioral health therapist to aid you in your recovery and treatment and help you meet any court mandated addiction counseling requirements as well. We want to help clients establish healthy coping skills and free themselves from alcohol addiction so that they can feel a sense of harmony and balance in their lives but it begins with the first step and sometimes that means a friend or loved one brings up a tough topic and helps restoration begin.

It started in college and let me tell you I had a blast, at least I think I did. And that’s part of the problem. For most of my life, I thought I had so much fun drinking and partying. Do you know anyone who rotted through the rear seat floorboard of their car from alcohol vomit? I didn’t think so. How about impulsively riding down the railroad tracks in your car? That was a trip. From two or three miles away I could see the headlight…yes, of the train. Please don’t think for a second that I’m bragging, though I did many times back then. I would feign this “reluctant” embarrassment with a lowered head. Ahem.

Ah, yes, what happened with the train? We bumped over the railroad ties laughing and raising hell until we saw that light. WHOA! My 3 buddies freaked. So, I slammed it into reverse and with all the concentration I could muster, backed up the half mile to the crossing. Now, just imagine sitting at the light and a car backs up to the intersection and pulls off the tracks and turns onto the street. Oh, by the way, when I did that, the railroad guards came down as if I were a train. Obviously I beat the train to the crossing, as I am writing this from this world.

Despite the thinly veiled self-deprecating humor, this continued until I was near middle age. Here’s a major part of the problem: unless we seriously hurt ourselves or others, this is considered normal! Right? You’ve heard or even said something to the effect like, he’s just a young man, kicking up his heels a bit. Oh, let him get it out of his system. No harm, no foul. Didn’t you kick up your heels when you were his age?

The fact is that the brain is a truly magnificent hunk of protoplasm. But even this amazing thing has its limits. From his ever-brilliant book, “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life” by Dr. Daniel Amen, he displays SPECT scans, a 3D image of the brain, particularly the frontal lobe, our decision-making part of the brain. There are quite often, depending on the drug or alcohol, one inch by 2 inch holes where gray matter used to be. Where did it go? It brings new meaning to the phrase, what were you thinking?

It’s almost cliché to say, I really need a drink after a tough day. Did you know that even the smallest amount of alcohol changes our biochemistry in terms of the shape and blood flow of the brain? Stress often leads to inappropriate coping skills such as substance abuse and addiction. Let’s face it; until we learn appropriate ways to cope, we use what we have. It’s sad: I know, but there are strategies to alleviate this. These steps can be used in any situation. I urge everyone to copy this and put it into use. Have a family meeting and adjust your ground rules. These are tools for conflict resolution and peace in the home and workplace. How many of the following attitudes and behaviors are present in your relationships?

∙ Communication is open, assertive (not aggressive) and spontaneous…including active listening.

∙ Rules/boundaries are clear and explicit, yet allow for agreed upon flexibility.

∙ Individuality, personal freedom and identity is encouraged and ultimately enhanced.

∙ The ability to enjoy doing for self as well as for others. Avoiding codependent behaviors.

∙ Play, humor and having fun together is commonplace.

∙ Each does not attempt to “fix” or control the other.

∙ Acceptance of self and other for their real selves.

∙ Humility: the ability to let go of the need to “be right”.

∙ Conflict is faced directly, communicated assertively, not aggressively, until resolved.

∙ A commitment to openness, constructive feedback and trust of the other.

∙ Attempt to balance giving and receiving, negotiating fairly and democratically.

∙ Practice tolerance: forgiveness of self and others. Until we are perfect we should avoid pointing fingers.

∙ A commitment to accept and learn from our mistakes. This is crucial.

∙ Allowing other meaningful relationships and interests to exist.

∙ Personal space and privacy is respected. Personal growth, change and exploration is encouraged.

∙ Avoid blaming and shaming. Take responsibility. It always feels better.

Substance abuse and ultimately addiction, create one of the biggest obstacles to the formation of healthy relationships. The drug of choice will always take priority, with the abuser telling him or herself that the relationship will be attended to after this one last use, this one last time.

The answer to the question, why can’t they just quit, is rhetorical at best. The fact is that we have changed our brain’s chemistry. “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life” by Dr. Daniel Amen demonstrates these changes with SPECT scans showing a three dimensional picture of the damaged brain, with significant holes in the frontal lobe, our decision making part of the brain.

We might as well deny gravity, insisting that with enough will power, we can hover two inches off the ground. That’s how “ logical” the why don’t they just quit comment is.

We would all agree that healthy relationships are tough, but with substance abuse and addiction, they become nearly impossible. Imagine being taught the aforementioned characteristics both in the home and in the elementary and secondary educational system, from day one, with continuous reinforcement. Can you imagine these characteristics becoming second nature?

The family and our children are being shortchanged by our lack of commitment to healthy relationships. We simply cannot continue to cope with alcohol and drugs. Even “moderation” changes the brain as SPECT scans clearly demonstrate. It is sincerely hoped that the aforementioned helps; our loved ones deserve nothing less.

D.J. Diebold is a board certified, state licensed behavioral health therapist specializing in substance abuse and addiction. He can be reached at: www.dieboldbehavioralcounseling.com or at (480) 650-1020.

A tendency to think and act deliberately, rather than from fears of past experiences.

An unmistakable ability to enjoy each moment.

A loss of interest in judging others.

A loss in interest in judging self.

A loss of interest in conflict.

A loss of interest in interpreting the actions of others.

A loss of ability to worry.

Frequent, overwhelming episodes of appreciation.

Contented feelings of connectedness with others and nature.

Frequent attacks of smiling through the heart.

Increasing susceptibility to kindness offered and the uncontrollable urge to reciprocate.

An increasing tendency to allow things to unfold, rather than resisting and manipulating.

-Author Unknown

Drug and alcohol counseling in Scottsdale certainly has its challenges. My office is close to Hayden and Via De Ventura, just south of Shea in Scottsdale. I’m constantly asked, what is the most challenging aspect of this demographic? Certainly the upper middle income flexibility has had a tremendous effect on our teens and young adults. Disposable income leads to the ability to experiment, and our kids certainly do. Drug and alcohol counseling in Scottsdale, as well as Paradise Valley, is a very sought after commodity. One day parents look up and viola, their child is down the road, experimenting and in the case of pain killer opiates, addicted in as short a time as 10 days. Yes, 10 days! For parents, this is a shocking and guilt-ridden reality.

The good news is that insightful, experienced help is out there. As a therapist and counselor, I’ve seen this “movie” for over 30 years. The names and faces change, but the behaviors remain the same. We all make mistakes and let’s face it, parenting doesn’t come with a manual. Parents are blamed, but unfortunately, not trained.

Parenting enhancement education is part of our program at Diebold Behavioral Counseling. Naturally this is optional, but is highly recommended to optimize the support for the youthful client. It’s more than scary, realizing that drug or alcohol abuse has resulted in addiction. We try to hide this fact and we become even more isolated, which is exactly what drugs and alcohol do. The substance comes first, relationships and responsibility second. Again, we don’t intend for that to happen, it’s just a byproduct of addiction.

As the fear of addiction intensifies, we defend ourselves with our three defense mechanisms: denial, rationalization and projection. Denial is a head-in-the-sand response to the thought that this just can’t be happening. Rationalization is an attempt to come to terms with these feelings of powerlessness. Projection is the response of throwing this reality on others, blaming those who are trying to help.

Yes, drug and alcohol counseling in Scottsdale is a messy process that can lead to physical, emotional and spiritual balance. A process that is well worth the effort. Please call us at (480) 650-1020. The healing begins with this phone call.