Social Structure and Substance Abuse

A study done by Wake Forest University School of Medicine looked into the relationship between stress and drug use. The study grouped monkeys together for a time, until a social structure was established, consisting of dominant and subordinate monkeys. The monkeys, when put in a stressful social situation, were then given access to both food and cocaine. The subordinate monkeys were more likely to give themselves a lot more cocaine, while the dominant ones gave themselves less. Brain scans showed the dominant ones actually gained pleasure from the test situation, and that they had a greater number of dopamine receptors.

Self-Medicating with Drugs

There are many reasons people get involved with drug abuse, one of them being to deal with stress or unhappiness in life. We know that people that have experienced a trauma are often found using drugs years later, as a way to numb the pain. Teens that have a difficult time at school may start doing drugs, in an attempt to fit in, or deal with the hurt. Alcoholics drink to push feelings away, and many people drink after a stressful day to reward themselves. Stress and negative feelings often lead to drug use. Drugs and alcohol have a way of numbing our feelings, making us forget our troubles, and for a time, make us feel good.

But as we know, the euphoric feelings don’t last forever, and a habit of self-medicating with drugs or alcohol can quickly become an addiction. We are a society of instant gratification – if it makes us feel good, do it, no matter what the consequences are.

Dopamine and Drugs

Some people have concluded from the monkey study that we need to help people overcome their self doubts, inferiority issues, and negative feelings in order to help them overcome substance abuse. They may be accurate to some extent; the dominant monkeys in the study had more dopamine receptors than subordinate ones. In humans, people with more receptors seem to feel the effects of drugs less. The drugs can still stimulate these receptors, but with more receptors, a larger percentage of them are left unaffected. However, because of the many different reasons people try and become addicted to drugs, we can’t say that improving one’s social status will make them less prone to drug abuse.

Stress Management

What we can say is that people with better coping skills are less likely to do drugs. Someone who feels inferior, has a negative outlook on their life, and views himself as being in a slump is more likely to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. But if we can teach people to think positively, find healthy alternatives to reduce stress, and come up with the power to fight their way out of a slump, they will have a much greater hope of staying sober.

Unsure where to start? Take Our Substance Abuse Self-Assessment

Take our free, 5-minute substance abuse self-assessment below if you think you or someone you love might be struggling with substance abuse. This evaluation consists of 11 yes or no questions that are designed to be used as an informational tool to assess the severity and probability of a substance use disorder. The test is free, confidential, and no personal information is needed to receive the result. Please be aware that this evaluation is not a substitute for advice from a medical doctor.