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Effects of Heroin Abuse on Emotional Processing and Stress

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Heroin abuse takes a severe toll on the body, and it can result in significant physical changes and withdrawal symptoms.  However, heroin doesn’t only effect a person’s physical health.  Heroin addiction also affects psychological functioning, including how we process emotional information and cope with stress.  Recent research sheds light on the connections between heroin abuse, emotional processing, and brain activity.  This new information is beneficial to those seeking heroin treatment, as it provides a possible mechanisms for the addictive properties of heroin.

Impact of Heroin Abuse and use on Emotional Processing and Stress

When a person takes heroin, the active components of the drug cross into the brain.  Activation of brain cells causes a cascade of events, including changes in the structure of the brain itself.  In particular, heroin strongly impacts brain areas responsible for emotional processing and memory.
Researchers at the University of Basel in Switzerland recently performed a study designed to identify alterations in emotional processing and brain activity in people using heroin.  They compared people addicted to heroin to healthy controls.  In one phase of the study, researchers gave heroin-dependent patients heroin through an IV; in the other phase, they gave them a harmless saline solution.  Importantly, researchers didn’t tell the participants whether they were getting the drug or the saline solution.  During the study, participants’ brains were scanned while they performed a task in which they had to look at faces with fearful expressions.
In healthy individuals, a brain region known as the amygdala is strongly activated when processing information about fear, such as looking at fearful facial expressions.  The people administered heroin showed a significant blunted response in the amygdala. Therefore, suggesting that they were less able to process emotional information.  Additionally, lower activity in the amygdala was associated with lower anxiety levels.

How Do These Findings Affect Heroin Treatment?

At first glance, it may not seem like such a bad thing that using heroin decreases anxiety and stress responses — after all, lower stress is good, right? Unfortunately, though, this lower stress response is one of the mechanisms that makes heroin so addictive.  When a drug lowers stress and anxiety, it makes a person more likely to continue taking the substance.  Researchers call this negative reinforcement.  By removing a harmful feeling (i.e., fear or anxiety), using heroin makes people feel better.  Thus, they are more likely to take the drug again when feeling afraid or anxious, perpetuating the cycle of heroin abuse.
Addiction specialists are using this new research to refine their methods of heroin treatment.  First, it is important to undergo opiate detox to flush the system of lingering opiate molecules.  This prevents the heroin from further changing the amygdala and other brain areas responsible for processing emotions.  Rapid opiate detox protocols such as those performed at the Waismann Method ® center are an effective way to undergo detox in a safe, supportive environment.  Only after treating opiate dependence through detox can the patient successfully engage in therapy and other forms of relapse prevention.
Additionally, treatment for heroin abuse and addiction often includes psychotherapy to help a person identify stressful events and other triggers for heroin use.  The focus of aftercare treatment is breaking the associations between heroin and lowered anxiety.  One beneficial approach is to teach a person new skills to deal with stressful or anxiety-provoking situations.  Finding healthy replacements for stress reduction makes cravings for heroin less powerful.

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