Learn / Finding Treatment for Cocaine Addiction
Cocaine addiction can wreak havoc on a person’s life. And once you’re caught in the cycle of substance misuse, healing may seem out of reach. That’s a misperception. Recovery is always possible. For some people, rehab for cocaine addiction is the best place to start.
“Cocaine is the most commonly reported illicit stimulant used in the U.S.”1 Because its abuse is so common, this drug has been the subject of widespread research. As a result, many treatment programs are well-equipped to help patients recover from cocaine misuse.
Cocaine is a stimulant2 derived from the coca plant native to South America. It can briefly increase a person’s energy, self confidence, sociability, and mood. Because the effects of cocaine3 are so short-lived, it can quickly become habit-forming. Long-term use may cause less desirable effects, such as cause paranoia, hypersensitivity, and irritability.
The history of cocaine4 is strongly connected to mental health. In fact, its popularity can be traced back more than a century. “In 1884, Sigmund Freud detailed his experiments with cocaine, recommending it for treatment of opiate addiction and melancholia.” However, he did not account for its negative effects, and reportedly struggled with addiction for much of his life. Unfortunately, his endorsement of the drug helped make it socially acceptable for some time, for both medical and recreational purposes.
Reported drug abuse statistics5 paint a clear and distressing picture of cocaine use today. According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, 2% of people in the U.S., or 5.5 million people, reported taking cocaine in 2018. As of 2022, more recent data is not yet available. Researchers also caution against comparing current data about drug use and health6 with surveys taken before 2020, since the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way surveys are conducted.
Cocaine use can have serious ill effects on both physical and mental health. Deaths caused by cocaine overdose in the U.S.7 have skyrocketed in recent years, increasing from nearly 4,000 in 1999 to nearly 16,000 in 2019. Because cocaine increases blood pressure8 and heart rate, it may cause strokes or respiratory failure. “Even first time users may experience seizures or heart attacks, which can be fatal.”
Because of these potential outcomes, cocaine misuse is extremely dangerous. However, patients don’t develop substance use disorders by choice. You may be highly susceptible to addiction despite your own better judgment, or desire to remain healthy. And some patients may be at a higher risk for developing a psychological dependence on cocaine.
Teenagers may be more susceptible to developing cocaine addictions.9 Relative to adults, “adolescents show greater intake of cocaine, acquire cocaine self-administration more rapidly, work harder for the drug and are less sensitive to increases in price.” In layman’s terms, young people do more of this drug than adults, and are willing to work harder to obtain it.
Adolescents also face social pressures that may not impact adult behavior. Specifically, many teenagers develop substance use disorders10 while trying to fit in with their peer groups. Parents of adolescents should take note of any drastic behavioral changes, as these may indicate the onset of addiction. Teens with substance use disorders may show less interest in activities they used to enjoy, pay less attention in school, or start spending time with new friends who encourage these behaviors. By itself, any one of these signs may be a normal part of adolescence; however, sudden and extreme behavioral changes can be a cause for concern.
According to one study, “cocaine addiction has been associated with several distinct behavioral/personality traits.” For example, novelty-seeking behavior is associated with cocaine abuse.11 And in particular, people with sensation-seeking tendencies may be more vulnerable to cocaine use. However, people with high impulsivity are more vulnerable to cocaine addiction.
These traits may be genetic, learned, or influenced by a person’s environment and life circumstances. More research is needed to understand the link between personality, behavior, and substance use disorders.
Cocaine has a direct effect on the way the brain processes dopamine, which regulates the reward system.12 During normal brain activity, this neurotransmitter is released, binds to dopamine receptors, and is then recycled by a protein called the dopamine transporter. “If cocaine is present,” however, “it attaches to the dopamine transporter and blocks the normal recycling process, resulting in a buildup of dopamine in the synapse, which contributes to the pleasurable effects of cocaine.”13
In the short term, this can be enjoyable. In the long term, however, cocaine use can change brain function.14 The drug causes neurochemical imbalances, which make it difficult for the patient to feel a sense of pleasure or achievement without substance misuse. Over time, “the brain will gain a tolerance to feelings of pleasure and it will take more and more of the drug to achieve the same level of euphoria.”
What’s more, the act of abusing any substance affects dopamine levels.15 This is because the experience of ingesting a drug can trigger the release of the chemical, whether or not that drug has an effect on dopamine levels. This feeds into the cycle of addiction, in which the patient continues using illicit substances in order to feel any sense of reward. This effect is amplified with substances that have a direct effect on dopamine to begin with.
Substance use disorders are treatable. No matter how long you’ve been using cocaine, or what impact it’s had on your life, change is always possible. And because its misuse is so prevalent, experts have been perfecting cocaine addiction treatment options16 for decades.
At present, “there are no medications approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat cocaine addiction,16 though researchers are exploring a variety of neurobiological targets.” However, there are a number of effective therapeutic and behavioral interventions. And the first step toward healing is to learn about the options available.
Cocaine withdrawal17 may or may not have any physical symptoms. Unlike alcohol and opiates, detox from this substance is rarely life-threatening. That being said, it can be extremely uncomfortable and psychologically distressing.
If at all possible, it’s best to go through this process under medical care. If you attend a detox program, you’ll be closely monitored by a team of doctors, nurses, and therapists, possibly including a psychiatrist. Patients may receive non-addictive prescriptions to help them manage the symptoms of withdrawal. This experience can also help you transition into a longer-term rehab program.
Learn more about detox in our article, FAQs: Detoxing From Substance Use.
Studies have shown that long-term rehab for cocaine dependence can be extremely effective.18 By attending a residential program, patients can take time away from triggers and difficult life circumstances, which may have been caused or exacerbated by their substance use. During that time, they can begin talk therapy, attend support groups, and make plans to live a healthier, more sustainable life after treatment.
Several therapeutic modalities can be effective in treating cocaine misuse. Researchers are most optimistic about contingency management (CM), a behavioral therapy that activates the patient’s reward system.
According to one study, contingency management is “perhaps the most effective psychosocial treatment” for cocaine use disorder.19 “In this treatment, patients receive vouchers redeemable for goods and services in the community, contingent upon achieving a predetermined therapeutic goal. CM treatment has been found to be especially effective in promoting initial abstinence from cocaine.”
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has also been shown to help these patients, although it may not be as productive as CM. This might be because CM has a more direct impact on brain chemistry, whereas CBT is skills-based.
Patients with a history of cocaine abuse can improve dramatically. In fact, detox and recovery from cocaine misuse can help you recover brain function.20 One 2017 study provided “early evidence that individuals with cocaine use disorder have the potential to at least partially reverse prefrontal cortex damage accompanying cocaine misuse, and regain associated cognitive abilities important for executive functions when cocaine use is stopped or significantly decreased.” In other words, you may be able to physically heal your brain during recovery.
But healing isn’t just about physical improvement. It’s also the process of building a better life. And in order to achieve that, patients must stay focused on recovery even after completing inpatient treatment. This ongoing commitment to healing may include regular talk therapy, attending support groups, or other modalities. For example, some studies have found that “greater participation in self-help programs” is an important factor in sustained recovery from cocaine dependence.21
When you have a history of substance misuse, recovery is often a lifelong process. That being said, it is absolutely possible to live a fulfilling life without cocaine use. Healing can even be fun! As you recalibrate your internal system of rewards, it’s important to do things you find enjoyable and exciting.
As you learn to make healthier choices, you can also begin building a new kind of confidence. And, best of all, you won’t be held back by the destabilizing pattern of substance abuse. Over time, you may find that joy is both more accessible and more sustainable.
If you’re ready to begin recovery, you can find a rehab center that treats cocaine addiction here.
Reviewed by Lisa Misquith
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