Drug addiction has been a social concern for a variety of reasons. People who develop an addiction to drugs are at increased risk for negative physical health problems and risk taking that can put them in harm’s way. They are more likely to engage in sexual risk taking and violent activities. These situations can lead to incarceration, sexually transmitted diseases, unintended pregnancy, and dangerous sexual encounters. Additionally, individuals who are addicted to drugs tend to be more impulsive than those who are not, and can make poor decisions with respect to their health. All of these conditions make abstaining from drugs more difficult for those with addictions.
The best way to improve drug addiction treatment is to better understand the emotional, behavioral, and psychological processes that occur during drug abstinence. Relapse is common for those with drug addiction, especially those who have a history of heroin or methamphetamine dependence.
To gain more insight into the processes that occur during recovery, Guibin Wang of the National Institute on Drug Dependence at Peking University in China recently led a study on 183 individuals in an addiction treatment center. The participants’ drug-free times ranged from six days to over a year. Wang assessed the participants for anxiety, depression, and impulsivity and also measured their cravings for meth with and without meth cues.
The results revealed that the longer the participants were drug free, the fewer symptoms of anxiety or depression they had. Length of abstinence was also directly positively related to improved decision making and decreased impulsivity. However, although general cravings decreased relative to length of abstinence, cue-related cravings increased during the first three months for the majority of participants.
“So the present study suggested that the risk for relapse may increase with an increased length of abstinence up to 3 months,” said Wang. But, cue cravings decreased after six months and declined even further after a year of abstinence. This finding is clinically significant and should prompt clinicians and interventionists to be mindful of increased cue cravings and relapse risk during the initial stage of abstinence. Professionals should take steps to help individuals fighting addiction from meth and other substances strengthen emotional regulation and reduce stress during the critical first several months of recovery.
Wang, G., Shi, J., Chen, N., Xu, L., Li, J., et al. (2013). Effects of length of abstinence on decision-making and craving in methamphetamine abusers. PLoS ONE 8(7): e68791. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0068791
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