How Does Addiction Affect A Person Emotionally?

woman suffering from addiction

When a person becomes addicted to alcohol or drugs, it wreaks havoc on their physical health, causing harmful side effects and, in some cases, contributing to debilitating or life-threatening diseases.

However, addiction also contributes to mental health problems and emotional instability, which then also affects those around them. 

If you’re wondering why you hardly recognize a loved one who’s fallen deep into a drug or alcohol addiction, it’s likely because their chemically-dependent brain is struggling to function without the substance, which has many physical and emotional consequences.

Addiction gradually erodes a person’s ability to regulate their emotions and moods, which can cause emotional instability. Substance abuse also contributes to feelings of guilt, depression, helplessness, fear, anger, and despair, which can lead to mood swings and mental health problems.

So, now that you know addiction and emotional instability are highly connected, we’ll dive a little bit deeper into the details.

What Are the Emotional Side Effects of Substance Abuse?

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, certain emotional risk factors can contribute to the development of addiction, such as:1

  • Being a victim of child abuse (physical, emotional, or sexual)
  • Having neglectful parents
  • Being a victim of domestic violence
  • Being bullied or harassed

Not surprisingly, these risk factors can lead to many negative emotions and contribute to the development of mental health problems. Although people who become addicted generally start abusing drugs or alcohol to quell the negative emotions they’re feeling, the substance abuse in itself also contributes to many negative emotions like:

  • Guilt
  • Depression
  • Helplessness
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Despair 

Different types of addictive substances affect the body and brain in different ways, so certain substances may also be associated with a certain set of emotional problems.2

SubstancePsychological Effects
AlcoholSevere mood swingsMemory problemsIncreased depression and anxietyImpaired learning
MethamphetamineIrritabilityAnxietyConfusion ParanoiaViolent behavior
CocaineHallucinationsConfusionAnxiety Violent, erratic, or paranoid behaviorLoss of interest in food or sexPsychosis Loss of interest in friends, family, hobbies, and other activities
HallucinogensDepressionAnxietyParanoiaViolent behaviorConfusionSuspicionFlashbacksBehavior similar to schizophrenic psychosisCatatonic syndrome (user becomes mute, lethargic, disoriented, and makes meaningless repetitive movements
MarijuanaReduced cognitive ability and concentrationParanoiaHallucinationsDecreased social inhibitions

What Is Emotional Instability?

As you can see, emotional instability is a general side effect of substance abuse. But what is the definition of emotional instability?

Emotional instability is the tendency to experience rapid and exaggerated changes in mood, with extremely strong emotions.3

For example, if something doesn’t go as planned, an emotionally unstable person may experience a sudden and severe drop in mood. They may feel a deep sense of hopelessness and sadness, which may be accompanied by suicidal thoughts or actions.

Or, in other instances, a comment made by someone may produce an intense emotional response with extreme demonstrations like throwing things, self-harm, or screaming.

These drastic swings from elated happiness to crushing sadness or anger can be exhausting. Emotional instability can also be dangerous to a person or those around them due to the behaviors that accompany their strong emotions. For example, someone may become angry enough to throw something at a loved one or to hurt themselves physically. 

So, what causes emotional instability?

Powerful emotions and demonstrations of negative emotions are common among teenagers, but normally, by the time a person reaches their early 20s, they have developed the coping strategies necessary to deal with their emotions. However, certain circumstances or life events can disrupt this development, such as:

  • Grief
  • Loss
  • Abuse
  • Abandonment
  • Substance abuse and addiction

Researchers have also found that emotional instability can be caused by chemical imbalances in the brain.

When this type of behavior is persistent, it may be diagnosable as an emotionally unstable personality disorder (EUPD). Emotional instability can also result from a personality disorder like Borderline Personality Disorder or occur alongside issues like depression, trauma, or addiction.

What Are the Signs of Emotional Instability?

Many people who struggle with addiction have experienced powerfully devastating life experiences, such as trauma or depression. Those stressful life events are often what push the person to start misusing drugs or alcohol in the first place.

Generally, common signs of emotional instability include:

  • Acting impulsively due to strong emotions
  • Difficulty coping with painful emotions
  • Reacting to certain situations in an unexpected way
  • Frequently experiencing a rollercoaster of emotions
  • Having loved ones communicate concern about the way you deal with your emotions

How Does Addiction Affect the Emotional Health of Family and Friends?

Millions of Americans suffer from addiction to alcohol, illegal drugs, or prescription drugs. The emotional consequences of this ripple outward to affect friends and loved ones in their immediate social circles. Of course, the impact of a person’s addiction affects them individually, but parents, spouses, children, siblings, grandparents, extended family members, and friends all feel the devastating impact of addiction too.

Here are some of the most common ways addiction affects the emotional health of family and friends close to the addict:

  • Harmful negative emotions: Just like the addict themselves, friends and family members of addicted individuals may experience many of the same emotions caused by drug addiction. They may feel helpless in the situation, fearful of what may happen, guilty for not being able to help the addict, or depressed about the entire situation and how it has affected their lives.
  • Worries about the future: Friends or family members of addicted individuals may constantly be plagued by fear and uncertainty of the future. Addiction is a volatile disease, and one can never know when they might receive a phone call with the horrible news of an accident, incarceration, or overdose. People who abuse drugs may also become involved with dangerous or unpredictable individuals, which can cause a lot of fear, stress, and anxiety for family members who are also subjected to time spent with these people.
  • Financial stress: Spouses of addicted individuals may face a lot of financial stress due to irresponsible spending habits that support an addiction. This can also lead to mental health problems like anxiety or depression.

How to Develop Emotional Stability in Recovery

Establishing emotional stability is an important part of sustaining long-term sobriety from alcohol and drugs. However, getting sober and learning how to regulate your emotional responses to stress and other life situations isn’t something you can just achieve on your own with sheer willpower. You will need professional treatment and support to change your life.

The process of developing emotional stability in recovery starts with detox. Medically-assisted drug or alcohol detox breaks your physical dependence on addictive substances, which is an important first step that is necessary for emotional regulation.

Drug withdrawal can be difficult to get through, especially without medical and clinical support. Sometimes, withdrawal symptoms can even last weeks or months, further contributing to emotional instability. However, the process of detoxing is worth the struggle because, with treatment, you will eventually settle into a physically stable condition and you’ll have constant support through the worst parts of it. 

After detox and withdrawal, without constant cravings and chemical imbalances affecting your body and mind, you can start focusing on other aspects of your recovery that are related to emotional regulation, such as establishing healthy ways to cope with stress.

A drug rehab program can provide helpful behavioral therapy individually, within a group setting, and with your close family members. Behavioral therapy will help you unpack the issues that have contributed to your addictive behavior, begin modifying harmful behaviors, and learn how to regulate your emotional responses to difficult life circumstances and situations.

A high-quality rehab program will also provide instruction on how to meditate, which researchers have proven helps individuals develop better concentration and more measured responses to stress.4,5

While effective, this process doesn’t fix emotional problems right away. It requires commitment, effort, and the willingness to take baby steps to achieve gradual growth. If you are dedicated to putting healthy behavioral strategies into place and practicing meditation alongside other relaxation techniques, over time, more mature emotional responses will become second nature.

Begin Your Recovery From Addiction at Briarwood Detox Center

Emotional instability is just one of the hurdles you’ll have to overcome in addiction recovery, but the caring staff at Briarwood Detox Center is here to help you get started.

We provide medically-assisted drug and alcohol detox programs that are individually designed to address your specific treatment needs. All of our programs begin with a comprehensive assessment that helps us determine how we can best help you achieve a stable state of physical sobriety and also begin healing emotionally.

While you detox, we provide 24/7 medical care to manage withdrawal symptoms and ensure that you are comfortable and safe at all times. Our clinical staff members and recovery support specialists are available to guide you through your emotional responses to withdrawal with caring, personal support and conversation.

Essentially, if you choose to start your recovery journey at Briarwood, you can rest assured knowing you’re in good hands. We’ll help you get through the physical and psychological challenges of withdrawal while preparing you for the deep, introspective work that comes with inpatient rehab or outpatient rehab. We’ll even help you take that next step, by providing referrals for ongoing treatment and facilitating that process for you.

If you have more questions about how our detox programs work or what comes after detox, please give us a call at (888) 857-0557. We are here to help you start over and begin a new, sober life when you’re ready.


  1. https://www.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/20190718-samhsa-risk-protective-factors.pdf 
  2. https://ncsacw.samhsa.gov/files/TrainingPackage/MOD2/PhysicalandPsychEffectsSubstanceUse.pdf 
  3. https://www.topdoctors.co.uk/medical-articles/emotional-instability-what-are-the-main-signs-in-adults 
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3772979/
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24395196/ 

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