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Drugs and Teen’s Emotions: A Chaotic Mix

Loving someone who is struggling with addiction can be challenging. Perhaps most difficult to cope with are the emotional changes that occur in the person. Parents often tell us that observing the personality changes, mood swings, and irritability that their child is experiencing can be draining for everyone involved. Fortunately, there are effective treatments that can help your teen get better at regulating emotions.

Understanding the Problem: How Drugs Impact Emotional Regulation Abilities

The relationship between drug use and emotional disturbance is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem. Adolescence is already an emotionally turbulent time, and teenagers often begin using drugs or alcohol in an attempt to cope with distressing emotions. Feelings of frustration, anger, guilt and low self-esteem may be temporarily alleviated by using drugs. On the other hand, drug use also contributes to problems with emotional regulation. Drugs affect a part of the brain known as the limbic system. This is the area responsible for processing our emotions. Drug-related changes to this area can contribute to depressed mood, mood swings, emotional outbursts, and persistent irritability.

Drugs and Teen’s Emotions: How Teens Get Stuck in a Cycle

  Thus, teens may get stuck in a cycle of escalating drug use and emotional distress. They use drugs to temporarily get rid of negative emotions, but that drug use can actually make those emotions even worse. One way to break this cycle is with treatment for drug addiction. Effective treatments can teach adolescents new strategies for dealing with complex emotions, eliminating the need for using drugs or alcohol to cope with emotional distress.

Treatment Addresses Problems with Emotional Regulation

There are several approaches that may be used in psychotherapy to help your child improve his or her emotional regulation abilities. One common approach is to teach stress reduction techniques. This can help your teen cope with difficult emotions, such as anxiety, worry, anger, frustration and distress.

Step One: Recognizing Emotions

  The first step in stress reduction is recognizing emotions. Although teens seem like adults in many ways, they often lack the language to fully capture their emotional experiences. Emotions may feel more intense and unmanageable to adolescents. Additionally, teens’ brains have not yet fully developed to allow them to manage emotions in the same way that adults can. Learning how to identify and talk about emotions may be a source of relief for many teens struggling with substance abuse. Additionally, treatment professionals can teach your teen specific techniques, such as guided mental imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, or deep breathing, which can be used to combat stress.

Step Two: Learning Mindfulness

Another approach to improving emotional regulation is called mindfulness. Mindfulness originated from Buddhist meditation, in which practitioners attend to moment-to-moment changes in their experience. In the world of addiction treatment, mindfulness can be a powerful way to help adolescents manage distressing emotions. Rather than getting caught up in emotions or fighting to change them, mindfulness teaches people to become detached observers of their emotional experiences. Attending to our emotions, almost as an outside observer, still allows us to experience a moment without getting caught up in the intensity of emotional distress. This is a powerful way for adolescents to learn to regulate difficult emotions. To learn more about the effect of drug use on teens, give us a call at 877-466-0620.


  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse, Introduction, Principles of Adolescent Substance Use Disorder Treatment: A Research-Based Guide, January 2014,
  2. Wills, T.A., Pokhrel, P., Morehouse, E., Fenster, B., Behavioral and emotional regulation and adolescent substance use problems: a test of moderation effects in a dual process model, Psychology of Addictive Behavior, June 2012,