Cocaine addiction is a compulsive, chronic, physical, and psychological need for cocaine. Generally, most people with an addiction to cocaine have trouble quitting the substance even after experiencing adverse effects and consequences. Because of this, living with an addiction to cocaine can affect nearly every aspect of an individual’s life, from their career and education to their personal life and relationships.
Abusing cocaine can damage the physical body, interfere with an individual’s mental health, and weaken their cognitive ability. An addiction to cocaine can also negatively affect an individual’s education, career, and finances. It can also put a strain on some of the most important relationships in an individual’s life. Excessively using cocaine might even cause legal trouble. Individuals may not recognize it at first, but cocaine can easily cause their lives to spiral out of control. Luckily, there are many effective ways to treat cocaine addiction. Enrolling in a professional treatment program, detoxification, behavioral therapy, and attending peer support groups can all help individuals overcome addiction.
In this article, we’re going to review what you need to know about cocaine, where it comes from, and how it affects the brain and body as well as best practices for treating cocaine addiction. If you have any questions about your or a loved one’s cocaine use, you can reach us 24 hours a day for a free consultation.
Cocaine is an addictive drug made from the leaves of the coca plant, which is native to South America. As a stimulant drug, cocaine speeds up activity in the central nervous system. Because of this, when individuals use the drug, they may temporarily feel excited, alert, focused, and energetic. But once the effects dissipate, they might feel lethargic, depressed, irritable, weak, and have trouble concentrating, which may make you want to use cocaine again. This can often create a vicious cycle in which an individual uses the drug and then turns to the drug once again to lessen withdrawal symptoms following their most recent use.
Even though cocaine originally comes from a plant, it’s one of the world’s most addictive drugs. Here are a few more facts everyone should know about the substance.
As we noted above, crack cocaine is a form of cocaine that has been processed to form a hard, rock-like substance that is often a shade of white or pink. Crack first became widely popular in the 1980s, when the drug was widespread in American cities. Since then, it has remained one of the most common street drugs used in the United States.
Crack cocaine is popular because of its potency, availability, and relatively cheap cost. Yet the low cost that makes crack appealing for users also makes it highly dangerous. This is because illegal street drug manufacturers often make crack by mixing pure cocaine with a variety of other chemicals, some of which (such as baking soda) can be relatively harmless while others (such as prescription medications) can be very harmful. Because crack is a street drug, there is no way for users to fully understand or detect the types of chemicals that were used when the drug was created. This is a risk for both cocaine and crack users and can contribute to overdoses and fatal medical complications.
For many years, scientists and researchers believed that crack caused a higher level of medical and mental health complications than standard cocaine. As research has advanced, however, scientists now better understand that both crack and cocaine can cause significant negative impacts on an individual’s brain and body. While crack cocaine may cause stronger or more sudden symptoms due to its potency, both drugs have the potential for long-term health consequences.
Nonetheless, a stigma persists about crack use, even though both drugs are equally dangerous and harmful to the user. Professional addiction treatment programs can help educate individuals that no street drug is safe and that addiction can take hold of a person regardless of their life circumstances, socioeconomic status, or background.
Even though a single use of cocaine can be dangerous, cocaine addiction typically develops over time. When consumed, cocaine enhances the effects of dopamine, a neurotransmitter, or chemical messenger, in the brain. In addition to making individuals feel good, dopamine is responsible for memory, learning, and motivation. By increasing the effects of dopamine, cocaine:
The more an individual uses cocaine, the more their brain stops producing dopamine naturally. This means that the brain now starts to depend on cocaine instead of natural sources of dopamine for pleasure. In response, the brain starts to crave cocaine more often, which compels individuals to use more of the substance more often, paving the way to addiction.
Like many drugs, cocaine affects the brain’s reward pathways. These circuits in our brain reinforce positive behaviors like eating and exercise. At the same time, however, our brain’s reward pathways can also reinforce harmful or negative behaviors that “feel good” such as eating fatty foods, consuming high amounts of sugar or processed ingredients, and taking recreational drugs. This is because dopamine, a brain chemical associated with pleasure, is involved in our reward-seeking behavior, whether that behavior is positive or negative.
The part of the brain that is responsible for the release of dopamine also associates that release of the neurotransmitter with positive emotions, such as happiness or euphoria, as well as a sense of motivation. This is what keeps us motivated to continue a particular behavior, whether that behavior is good for us (such as exercise) or harmful (such as taking drugs, drinking alcohol, or eating junk food).
In other words, we can experience a dopamine release after we exercise (such as a “runner’s high”) but also after we eat a large unhealthy meal or consume drugs or alcohol. The brain and body don’t differentiate between whether the experience was good for us or harmful for our health.
One key difference between the dopamine released under normal circumstances and the dopamine released when we take drugs or drink alcohol, however, is the amount. In standard circumstances, our body releases dopamine to communicate between the different neurons in our brain, which helps us tell our brain to produce pleasure chemicals and motivate us to continue that behavior. For example, we experience an increased level of dopamine when we eat food that we particularly enjoy or go for a run.
Once the dopamine has delivered its message to the brain in these normal circumstances, another brain chemical known as a transporter saves the dopamine chemical for future use. This is the brain’s way of “resetting” back to normal after a pleasurable experience.
When we take drugs or consume alcohol, however, dopamine doesn’t behave the same way. This is because the chemicals found in drugs and alcohol change the way our brain behaves. In the case of cocaine, we experience the initial increase in dopamine when the drug enters our system. When the transporter chemical arrives to save the dopamine neurotransmitter for later, however, cocaine stops the brain from taking this action. This means that instead of “resetting” back to normal, the brain is flooded with more dopamine than it could ever produce naturally. This leads to the intense and short-lived “high” associated with cocaine use.
This also means that the brain quickly becomes accustomed to a much higher level of dopamine than it would experience in normal life. As a result, individuals who take cocaine on a regular basis may experience intense cravings as the brain seeks out that artificially high dopamine level on a regular basis.
So what does this mean for our long-term brain health?
As you can imagine, the stress that cocaine places on our brain — including disrupting its basic functioning — also can cause long-term damage to our brain. This damage can make it more difficult for us to think, make rational decisions, control our emotions, and remember important details. Individuals who take cocaine on a regular basis may feel confused, lethargic, lost, or forgetful as their brain struggles to cope with the presence of the drug.
Researchers are still studying why cocaine has such a devastating effect on our brains. Nonetheless, they are able to identify some areas where cocaine clearly impacts our brain health.
One study found that long-term cocaine use changes the role of the neurotransmitter glutamate in our brain, causing an imbalance within one of the most important chemical messengers in our body. In non-addicted brains, glutamate helps us with our memory, ability to learn, and other vital processes. In the brains of individuals struggling with addiction, however, glutamate appears to play a different role and may actually reinforce addiction. As neuroscientist Marc Dingman writes, “Addiction is really just a type of learning—perhaps learning gone haywire, but learning nonetheless…In addiction, however, unlike other learning processes, seeking becomes obsessive and compulsive.”
Additional research indicates that stress may also play a role in ongoing cocaine addiction. As we know, stress is a major driver of addictive behaviors. Many people turn to addictive substances as a coping mechanism for stressful experiences and moments. Life stressors such as unemployment, poverty, abuse, and relationship challenges can also make us more likely to turn to drugs and alcohol.
Scientific research now points to another role that stress can play in our addictive behaviors: in tests, animals that had been frequently exposed to cocaine were more likely to turn to the drug during stressful moments. Researchers believe this same behavior may apply to humans who take cocaine frequently. In fact, research indicates that the more cocaine an individual takes, the more likely they are to turn to cocaine during stressful moments in their lives.
While not surprising, other research shows that long-term cocaine use can affect the way we think about ourselves and the world. One study found that individuals who took cocaine on a regular basis had difficulty making healthy decisions, struggled to understand why their drug use was harmful to themselves and others, and weren’t able to be critical of their own self-destructive behaviors.
Not everyone who uses cocaine becomes addicted to the substance. However, statistics show that approximately 1 out of every 4 people who use cocaine recreationally becomes addicted to the drug. Unfortunately, addictive habits can be so compulsive that many individuals may not even realize they have an addiction to cocaine until others around them start to notice physical, psychological, and behavioral changes.
Recognizing the signs of cocaine addiction may be difficult at first, but as time passes, people grappling with substance abuse start to exhibit physical, behavioral, and emotional signs that indicate addictive behavior. Individuals living with an addiction to cocaine may have drug paraphernalia such as needles, pipes, spoons, razor blades, or small plastic bags hidden in their homes or cars. They may also have white residue on hand-held mirrors, magazines, books, or other surfaces in their homes.
Physical signs of cocaine addiction tend to include:
Additionally, someone with a cocaine addiction may also exhibit behavioral signs that include:
Cocaine-induced psychosis can also cause individuals to experience bouts of:
If an individual has taken cocaine for a long period of time, you may notice significant changes in their behavior. This is especially noticeable if the individual is a friend, family member, or loved one whom you have known for a long time.
The reason for these changes is that cocaine greatly impacts the brain, which can, over time, change an individual’s mood, outlook on life, behavior, decision making, and ability to be self-critical.
For example, your loved one may, at one time, have been able to handle regular life stress relatively well. For example, a work deadline or a school assignment, while stressful, wouldn’t have triggered anger, mood swings, or paranoia.
Over time, however, if your loved one uses cocaine on a regular basis, they may no longer be able to cope with life stress as effectively. Small daily annoyances or deadlines may cause significant emotional reactions, including extreme anger, depression, anxiety, pessimism, or frustration. This is because the neurotransmitter chemicals in their brain have been “re-wired” by cocaine use. What were once manageable daily tasks can quickly become major obstacles that cause them to temporarily shut down.
Other common behavioral signs of addiction include a loss of interest in family, friends, or hobbies that an individual once enjoyed, as well as sudden poor performance at work or school.
Individuals who take cocaine regularly may be extremely focused on obtaining and taking more of the drug. This is often to stop the effects of withdrawal, which is the process in which the brain and body adjust to the lack of the drug in their system. Withdrawal can be painful, upsetting, and, in some cases, life-threatening.
Withdrawal from cocaine can occur just hours after individuals stop taking the drug on a regular basis, which leads many addicted individuals to seek out more of the drug compulsively in order to avoid symptoms. While many withdrawal symptoms may resemble common flu-like concerns, individuals may be at risk of developing further health complications, including challenges related to their breathing and heart.
If your loved one decides to stop taking cocaine after a period of long-term use, it’s critical that they seek help from a professional addiction treatment program or medical professional. In this case, they will need to undergo a process known as detoxification, or detox, in which they are able to carefully remove the drug from their body. Effective addiction treatment is only possible after an individual has undergone detox.
Detox should be overseen by medical staff who can assist the individual with managing common symptoms including nausea, muscle or body aches, lethargy, and emotional mood swings, including anxiety, depression, and fear. In some cases, medical staff may choose to carefully administer medications to manage withdrawal-related symptoms and keep the individual more comfortable. The length and intensity of the detox process depends on the amount of cocaine an individual consumed prior to treatment, how long they consumed the drug, and whether they have underlying mental or physical health conditions.
Common withdrawal symptoms associated with long-term cocaine use include:
Luckily, with proper guidance, individuals can safely undergo the detox process and be ready for professional addiction treatment to follow.
Cocaine and crack can be extremely damaging to the brain and body whether they’re used once or more frequently. As a stimulant, cocaine speeds up activity in the central nervous system only minutes after it is ingested. Even though this heightened activity can make individuals feel alert, confident, and energetic, the rate of physical exertion used when individuals consume cocaine can cause a number of adverse side effects.
As activity in the central nervous system ramps up, individuals may experience:
Cocaine can also have more lasting, permanent effects on the brain and body. Abusing cocaine can wreak havoc on almost every organ in the body, but research shows that the substance can especially damage the following organs:
Women who may be pregnant and use cocaine risk a variety of different health challenges, including:
Babies whose mothers used cocaine during their development often:
Cocaine can also have a significant impact on an individual’s mental health, both while they use the drug and afterward. Cocaine use can lead to a variety of different mental health challenges, particularly if an individual already has a predisposition to mental health complications. For example, cocaine use can trigger mental health concerns including:
Researchers also believe that individuals who use crack cocaine may experience additional mental health complications due to the potency of the drug. These challenges could include:
A major European research study found that cocaine users frequently struggled with co-occurring mental health disorders, including conditions like antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In a study of cocaine and crack users across different cities in Europe, the researchers found that individuals were more likely to experience mental health complications if they used heavy amounts of either drug on a regular basis, had poor physical and mental health, and had difficult social circumstances, such as being unemployed or living in poverty.
Luckily, receiving professional treatment for cocaine addiction can help lessen, prevent, and potentially reverse some of cocaine’s adverse health effects.
Even though cocaine is one of the world’s most addictive drugs, professional addiction recovery programs like the ones we offer here at Meta can help individuals overcome addiction.
Luckily, treatment for cocaine addiction is possible. In fact, individuals who seek professional outpatient treatment may be able to lower their relapse risk and develop a support network while still maintaining life responsibilities and commitments.
Generally, effectively treating cocaine addiction involves:
Treating an addiction to cocaine begins with clearing all traces of the drug from the body. This process, also known as “detox,” includes managing withdrawal symptoms which can range from fatigue and anxiety to depression and nightmares. Some individuals also have trouble concentrating, an increased appetite, cravings, chills, nerve pain, and muscle aches. The detoxification process can last anywhere from a few weeks to many months depending on an individual’s cocaine use. As the body becomes free of cocaine, treatment shifts to addressing harmful thoughts, feelings, and circumstances that may have contributed to an individual’s addiction.
Because the withdrawal process from cocaine can be physically dangerous, it’s vital that individuals seek detoxification assistance from a professional addiction treatment program or medical professional. If individuals try to undergo the withdrawal process on their own, they risk becoming incapacitated or unable to reach medical care in the case of a complication. Additionally, a professional detox program can help individuals better understand their addiction and guide them towards appropriate treatment resources.
In addition to identifying destructive patterns, behavioral therapy helps individuals develop healthy coping mechanisms that can help them maintain their sobriety. This aspect of treatment can include medication and a range of therapies. Here at Meta, we offer the following therapies and clinical services:
Behavioral therapy often includes both individual and group therapy with a trained and licensed therapist. In these sessions, individuals can explore the underlying factors that may have influenced their cocaine use. These can often include life circumstances, traumatic experiences, personal or professional crises, and underlying mental health conditions. Therapists can help individuals understand the “why” behind their addiction and develop healthy coping mechanisms to reduce their risk of future relapse. Behavioral therapy should be a core component of any successful recovery program but may be supported by medication-assisted treatment as deemed appropriate by a treatment program’s medical staff.
At Meta, our therapists provide both individual and group therapy using both CBT and DBT modalities.
Quitting stimulants can trigger a wide range of mental health challenges. Detoxing from cocaine can cause individuals to experience depression, anxiety, paranoia, panic attacks, hallucinations, and even suicidal thoughts. Because of this, most professional treatment programs, including ours, also help treat any co-occurring disorders that may have existed alongside the addiction to cocaine.
As we noted earlier, cocaine addiction often co-occurs with other mental health conditions including personality disorders, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress. That’s why it’s so important that individuals seek treatment not only for their addiction but also for any mental health conditions that they are also experiencing. Research shows that treatment programs must address both addiction and mental health conditions simultaneously in order to be effective for the long term.
At Meta, we provide support for co-occurring disorders through our trained and licensed clinical staff, who ensure that each treatment plan is fully customized to meet client needs and long-term recovery goals.
Recovering from an addiction can be difficult. 12-step programs and peer support groups can help support, encourage, and motivate individuals to continue to make positive changes in their lives.
Most treatment programs will connect clients to appropriate community-based 12-step programs in their community, such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA). At Meta, we also incorporate peer support groups into our own treatment programs so that clients can learn from each other and develop recovery networks for everyday life. Many clients find that they develop lasting, supportive friendships through peer support sessions and other group activities.
When they are ready to get sober, sometimes individuals feel they can manage their recovery on their own or with the help of friends and family. Unfortunately, addiction is a complex and difficult disease to treat which involves both physical and psychological dependence. For this reason, we recommend individuals seek professional addiction treatment to assist in their recovery.
Among the benefits of professional addiction treatment programs include:
While individuals may admit to their drug use when confronted, it is far more common for addicted people to deny that they have a problem and refuse to get help.
In those cases, family members and friends can seek the help of an addiction treatment professional to help organize an intervention. An intervention is an organized and pre-planned event that aims to help addicted individuals realize the extent of their addiction issues and how they impact both themselves and others. In a typical intervention, family members and friends of the addicted person will take turns sharing ways in which the person’s addiction has harmed their lives. A professional interventionist usually accompanies the family and friends throughout the process, which culminates with a request to the addicted person to get help. If they agree, the interventionist will facilitate their safe transfer to an addiction treatment program.
If you are helping a loved one manage their cocaine addiction, be prepared that you may face significant resistance to enrolling them in a treatment program.
As we noted above, working with an addiction treatment professional can make a difference. In some cases, individuals may benefit from a professionally staged intervention that can bring family members and friends together to directly address a loved one.
Should an intervention succeed, your loved one can enroll in an addiction treatment program that can help them move towards a stable recovery.
If the intervention falls short, your addiction treatment partner will probably suggest an alternative approach, perhaps changing the setting, messages, or participants for a future intervention. Frustratingly, it is ultimately up to your addicted loved one to agree to accept and attend treatment.
When your loved one does agree to enroll in a treatment program, you can still provide support and care as they recover from addiction. For example, at Meta, we incorporate family members and friends into the recovery process through group therapy and other programs. When looking for a treatment program for your loved one, it’s wise to consider a program that involves family members in the client’s recovery.
After your loved one completes treatment (or during the treatment process if they are attending outpatient treatment and living at home) you can continue to support them. Educate yourself about their addiction and understand the risks facing them when they complete treatment. Many individuals will need to reinvent their lifestyle, including who they spend time with, where they go, and what they do in their free time, in order to reduce their relapse risk. Understand that your loved one may make dramatic changes to their life in order to maintain their recovery. As long as those changes are healthy and positive, try to support their goals and recovery journey.
When helping a loved one recover, you will be faced with good days and bad days. Sometimes your loved one will make incredible progress towards their recovery goals. At other times, they will fall short or feel stuck. Don’t be afraid to turn to your loved one’s addiction treatment program for support.
Your cocaine use may start recreationally but can quickly spiral out of control. Chronic cocaine use puts strain and stress on your heart, lungs, and brain, and will gradually become damaging to your mental health and thinking abilities. An addiction to cocaine can be hard to beat but living a cocaine-free life is possible.
Our flexible outpatient programs can help you live the sober life you want and deserve. Best of all, our programs allow you to progress in your recovery while still going to work, attending school, or taking care of your family. We understand that recovery must be effective both inside and outside your treatment program and we work hard to help you apply the lessons learned in treatment to your everyday life. For individuals who need sustained support while fulfilling life responsibilities, outpatient treatment with Meta can be an ideal fit.
If you’re not sure whether outpatient treatment is appropriate for you, take our assessments for individuals struggling with addiction and their loved ones.
Let us help you reach a path of long-term recovery. Contact us today to learn more.