You and Substance Use: Stuff to think about...and ways to make changes
People use drugs
For thousands of years, people around the world have been using drugs—caffeine, tobacco, alcohol, cannabis, and so on—largely to help them manage their daily lives (though recreational drug use has always existed, too).
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Today, as in the past, drug use is deeply embedded in the fabric of many societies. For example, many of us use drugs to celebrate successes and to help us deal with grief and sadness. We use drugs to mark rites of passage and to pursue spiritual insight. We use them to get going and to unwind. In other words, drugs are still used as aids to daily
(Not convinced? Consider this: We use caffeine to perk us up for work, and pills to help us control our weight. We use tobacco, alcohol and cannabis to help us relax during or after a stressful day. And we use these same drugs to help us ring in the New Year or cheer on our favourite sports team. Some of us use substances to cope with boredom and frustration.That is, we even use drugs as a form of entertainment in and of itself.)
There’s no society on earth that does not in some way celebrate, depend on, profit from, enjoy and also suffer from the use of drugs (though the types of drugs used may be vastly different from culture to culture). During the last century, there was an upsurge in the cultivation, manufacture and trade of mind-altering (psychoactive) substances, some quite ancient and others new. Some have been developed from pharmaceutical products made initially for treating pain, sleep or mental health problems (e.g., heroin, barbiturates and benzodiazepines). Others have been manufactured for recreational purposes (e.g., ecstasy). Still others—notably cannabis—are made from plants or seeds that have been cultivated and traded to new and much larger markets.
“A human being is a part of the whole, called by us 'Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.”
All societies have a relationship with substances because humans have been using different drugs to varying degrees for a long time.
To feel good. Most psychoactive substances produce feelings of pleasure. Sometimes, with stimulants in particular, pleasure is accompanied by feelings of power, self-confidence and increased energy. Depressants, by contrast, bring on feelings of relaxation and satisfaction.
To feel better. Many people who suffer from social anxiety or stress may use drugs to “take the edge off” and feel more comfortable. Some people who have experienced trauma (particularly when young), or who suffer from depression, may use drugs to lessen intense feelings of distress.
To do better. The increasing pressure to improve performance leads many people to use substances to “get going” or “keep going” or “make it to the next level.”
For curiosity or social interaction. As social creatures we are strongly influenced by the behaviour of those around us, and substance use can be seen as a way to build connections with others. What’s more, some people naturally have a higher need for novelty and a higher tolerance for risk, both of which can promote drug use.
Drugs are often categorized as legal versus illegal, or soft versus hard. But these groupings can be misleading since they don’t accurately reflect the levels of risk associated with using them. A more useful classification involves impact on the brain and spinal cord, also known as the central nervous system (CNS):
Depressants decrease activity in the CNS (e.g., decrease heart rate and breathing). Alcohol and heroin are examples of depressants.
Stimulants increase activity in the CNS (e.g., increase heart rate and breathing). Caffeine, tobacco, amphetamines and cocaine are examples of stimulants.
Hallucinogens affect the CNS by causing perceptual distortions. Magic mushrooms and LSD are examples of hallucinogens.
Note: Some drugs, such as cannabis, are not easily classified because they fit into more than one category.
Keep a substance use diary so you can monitor your weekly drug use pattern. You can use it to keep track of what you’re using, how much you’re using, how much your use is costing you, and when, where, and with whom you’re using.
About the author
The Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, formerly CARBC, is a member of the BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information. The institute is dedicated to the study of substance use in support of community-wide efforts aimed at providing all people with access to healthier lives, whether using substances or not. For more, visit www.cisur.ca.