Sara Bellum
September 30 2011

During NIDA’s Drug Facts Chat Day 2010, young people asked a lot of great questions. One really basic question came from a student in Pennsylvania:

"Why do people take drugs?"

While the specific answer may differ from person to person, some common reasons are that people think they will feel good, forget their problems, perform better, or fit in.

Drugs may have these effects at first, but they do not last, at least not like the long-term negative consequences can. Here are some “reality checks” on common reasons people have for doing drugs:  

“Drugs help me feel good.” Most abused drugs produce intense feelings of pleasure. This initial sensation of euphoria is followed by other effects, which differ with the type of drug used. For example, with stimulants such as cocaine, the “high” is followed by feelings of power, self-confidence, and increased energy. In contrast, the euphoria caused by opiates such as heroin is followed by feelings of relaxation and satisfaction.

Reality check: While a drug-induced high may temporarily boost your mood, the effect doesn’t last long. Before you know it, the same old worries return, and, in fact, the after-effects of the drug may leave you with additional physical or emotional symptoms. Headaches, nausea, and feeling “down” are common side effects for many people. Withdrawal can be quite painful—physically and mentally.

Drugs help me feel better. Some people who suffer from social anxiety, stress-related disorders, and depression start abusing drugs in an attempt to lessen feelings of distress. Stress can play a major role in beginning drug use, continuing drug abuse, or in relapsing to drug use for people recovering from addiction.

Reality check: Some prescription medications can help lessen anxiety- or stress-related problems for a person suffering from a mental health problem that has been diagnosed by a doctor. These medications should only be taken as prescribed by a doctor and used under a doctor’s care. The “high” caused by illicit drugs like marijuana or cocaine may be just a temporary mask over your problems and will not make you feel better in the long run. In fact, illicit drugs may cause you even more stress, anxiety, and problems.

"Drugs help me perform better.” The increasing pressure that some people feel to chemically enhance or improve their athletic abilities or performance in school can prompt them to start or continue drug abuse.

Reality check: So-called “performance enhancing” drugs, like steroids, actually have serious side effects. Men may develop breasts, and women may acquire some male characteristics like a deeper voice and increased body hair. Some people may abuse stimulants to increase their alertness, but dangerous side effects like irregular heartbeat, high body temperatures, and the potential for heart failure or seizures make this a bad bargain.

“Everyone’s doing it.” Teens are particularly vulnerable to trying drugs because of the strong influence of peer pressure; they're more likely, for example, to take part in risky behaviors because they assume that their peers are also doing it.

Reality check: The annual Monitoring the Future survey, which measures drug abuse by 8th, 10th, and 12th graders and their attitudes towards drugs, shows that nowhere close to a majority of teens are abusing drugs (PDF, 317 KB).

The bottom line? Knowing more about the negative effects of drugs on your brain and body can help you think twice before you act.

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