Meth Addiction & Treatment

Signs of a Problem & Getting Help

Content Overview

What Is Meth So Addicting?

Meth is so powerful that it is almost instantly habit-forming. Each meth hit can damage key receptors in the brain, rendering users incapable of feeling pleasure without the assistance of meth. Recovery begins with medical detox, followed by in-depth therapy with a trained professional.

Meth, as it is colloquially known, floods the nervous system and penetrates the brain to a far greater degree than amphetamine.

The euphoric blast upon inhalation remains in the patient’s system for much longer, scrambling and rewriting the brain’s reward and pleasure centers, and sowing the seeds for a painful addiction.

The Basics of Meth

Meth is one of the most devastating and vicious drugs on the market. The PBS documentary series Frontline explains that, like most drugs, meth derives its effectiveness from forcing the brain to pump out dopamine, the neurotransmitter that induces a sense of satisfaction from a job well done. Any number of activities and tasks can cause a release of dopamine from the brain, but drugs hijack that system and push the brain to secrete more dopamine than is normal and healthy. Meth is so powerful that it is instantly habit-forming, opening the door to long-term consumption.
Over time, meth actually destroys dopamine receptors in the brain, rendering the patient incapable of experiencing pleasure through any other means or source aside from the meth. Meth becomes the center of users’ lives; their resources, time, energy, and focus are spent on getting meth. Social circles, professional obligations, and even family become less important, since the natural impulses to succeed in those areas have been crushed by the force of the constant meth use. Treatment and rehabilitation can bring restoration, but there is a significant risk of permanent cognitive impairment if meth use is unchecked.

Signs and Symptoms of a Meth Addiction

Woman with addiction feeling the pain of withdrawal
The effects of methamphetamine go far beyond the psychological. Arizona State University compiled some of the physical effects of meth use:

  • Weight loss (meth shuts down the brain’s hunger centers)
  • Sleep deprivation (the constant stimulation shorts out the need for sleep)
  • Dehydration
  • Elevated body temperature
  • Skin abscesses (caused by injecting meth into the skin, instead a vein)
  • Osteoporosis (teeth and bones become easily breakable)
  • Decreased libido

Since meth radically alters the brain’s chemistry, this change manifests in a number of behavioral changes as well. Patients experience severe paranoia (followed by social isolation), hallucinations, and aggressive behavior marked by wild mood swings.

The stimulant properties of meth may also compel patients to try out risky and impulsive behavior, and this (combined with other observations) may be a sign of an addiction.

The First Time

First-time users may not experience most (or any) of these signs. Their high often makes them very active, hyper alert, euphoric, and talkative for 6-12 hours. Behind the scenes, the sensation is being carved into the brain’s rewards system. Normal, healthy activities leave more of a fingerprint on the brain; drugs like methamphetamine mercilessly swamp the regions associated with memory, reward, pleasure, and cognition. A doctor speaking to Frontline explains that meth forces the brain to produce as much as 1,250 times the dopamine it produces during an activity like sexual intercourse. No other experience can compare to what that first shot of meth was like, and as the brain is forced to adapt to every subsequent exposure to meth, even small or moderate amounts don’t compare to that first shot. This compels users to relentlessly chase what they felt in their first experiences, a phenomenon known as “chasing the dragon.”In reality, all they do is deepen their addictions.

Attempts to discontinue meth usage (whether voluntarily or otherwise) are met with a series of physiological withdrawal effects, because the body and brain have grown accustomed to the presence of meth.

Anhedonia and Psychosis

Anhedonia, per Psychology Today, is the inability to experience pleasure from activities that were once enjoyable: hobbies, recreational pursuits, sexual activities, or even something as simple as listening to music. This state can arise from the damage done by meth to the brain’s dopamine receptors; the patient is neurologically incapable of deriving pleasure from formerly attractive pursuits. Anhedonia can lead to other issues such as fatigue, loneliness, and hopelessness. Clients who attempt to get off methamphetamine by themselves are often in danger of relapsing, because their brains have become so primed to associating good feelings with meth alone, and nothing else.

The journal Addiction conducted a study on 56 people who were dependent on methamphetamine and had been abstinent for five weeks. The study found that in addition to symptoms of major depression, patients also showed signs of psychosis as part of their withdrawal from meth. On a positive note, the symptoms passed relatively quickly. It took one week for the depressive and psychotic signs to resolve, and as the patients overcame the worst of the effects, fatigue gave way to deep sleep. Patients did still struggle with cravings for meth even five weeks after their last consumption.

Meth Addiction Treatment

Treating a methamphetamine addiction requires comprehensive courses of detoxification. Treatment involves purging the physical presence of meth from users’ bodies and helping their bodies acclimatize to functioning without meth. Treatment should also address the psychological damage done by meth, both in terms of rehabilitating the mind, and showing recovering users how they can function and grow in everyday life without the compulsion to seek out meth.

The actual process of detoxing from meth depends on the person’s level of addiction. If the addiction is relatively moderate (i.e., acceptably short in duration, with a minimal consumption of meth), and the individual meets other criteria, it may be possible to enter into an outpatient program, whereby the person is given medications from a hospital or treatment center and allowed to detox at home. Some of the criteria may be:

  • Proving that there are no drugs (of any kind, including alcohol) in the house where the detox will take place
  • Proving that the individual has sober and reliable friends and family who can offer support and assistance
  • Agreeing to participate in therapy and aftercare group sessions
  • Returning all unused medicine to the treatment center

In the event of the meth addiction being more serious (long-term, with large amounts of methamphetamine injected or snorted), the individual may require admission into an inpatient treatment program. A doctor may feel that an inpatient program is the better option if there is a significant danger that the person might relapse as a result of the detoxification; that is, the inevitable withdrawal symptoms that arise from the detox are so severe, that the individual will abandon the process to use meth again for the sake of alleviating the discomfort.

Inpatient detox may also be the preferred course of action if the individual lives in an environment that is not conducive to sobriety (i.e., a lot of stress in the household, or there are various forms of drugs and alcohol present that will prove too much of a temptation). Any co-occurring mental health disorders that the individual has will also likely be a factor in the consideration of inpatient treatment.

If this is the case, the detoxification process will take place within a hospital or the treatment facility itself. Staff can monitor the client’s progress through withdrawal, providing medication and support (moral and/or psychological as needed), and also ensuring an environment that is removed from any of the triggers or causes that contributed to the person’s meth addiction.

An example of the medication that can help counter methamphetamine (and the lack thereof in the client’s system) is naltrexone, a drug generally used in the treatment of alcoholism. UCLA researchers discovered that patients who were given naltrexone after they completed their detoxification had “significantly reduced”cravings for meth and were even less aroused by meth when in its presence. Furthermore, naltrexone actually dulled the perceived pleasure of meth; patients who took meth after naltrexone therapy reported that they didn’t enjoy it as much as they used to and were less likely to want meth again.

Other medications, like benzodiazepines, can be prescribed if clients become agitated or panicked as a result of their bodies adjusting to life without meth.

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Therapy for a Meth Addiction

Business friends discussing brainstorming and ideas at meeting i

When an individual has completed detox, they will move to the therapy phase of treatment.

Therapy has a number of aims: to show clients how they can cope with the temptation to use meth in times of stress or boredom with daily life; to help them understand the thought and behavioral patterns that brought them to the point of using meth; and to show them how they can learn better, healthier thought and behavioral patterns, in order to lead productive and fulfilling lives without the need of drugs like meth.

A former drug addict, and now a drug and alcohol intervention counselor, tells PBS that therapy shows individuals how they can forgive themselves and come to terms with what their addictions did to their lives and their families. Once they reach that point (with the careful guidance of a therapist), they are in a position where they can learn how to take control of their lives again.

Fox News reports that in some counties, meth has become even more popular than cocaine. Meth can lead to psychosis and brain damage. It can shatter lives. But there is hope, and complete recovery is possible. With proper treatment, individuals can leave meth behind and achieve healthy, balanced lives.

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