Psychological Effects of Heroin

The effects of heroin are far-reaching and felt in both the short and long term. Heroin is a highly addictive and often deadly drug. Unfortunately, its use continues to skyrocket in the U.S., in addition to other opioids. Heroin doesn’t just impact people when they’re high, the effects may be felt over the long term as well.

Psychological Effects of Heroin
An important part of understanding the psychological effects of heroin is understanding how the drug works. Heroin is classified as an opioid. Opioids also include prescription pain medication. It’s not uncommon for heroin addiction, to begin with, a legitimate prescription for a pain medication like Vicodin. Someone can be prescribed an opioid, take it as directed and become addicted. When they can no longer get more of the prescription, they may choose to use heroin, which tends to be cheaper and more potent than many prescription opioids.

Opioids are powerful in the way they interact with the brain. Once someone takes an opioid, it binds to specific receptors in the central nervous system (i.e., opioid receptors). These receptors play a role in how someone senses pain, but they have other effects as well. For example, when opioids bind to these receptors, it slows breathing, and if breathing becomes too slow, an overdose can occur. The unfortunate reality is that an overdose is often fatal.

Opioids can refer to both natural and synthetic drugs. Heroin, for example, is naturally derived from the poppy plant, but it’s commonly cut with fentanyl. Fentanyl is cheap to manufacture and incredibly potent. When someone is prescribed a prescription opioid, the objective is to treat their pain by artificially replicating the body’s natural pain-relieving chemicals. Prescription opioids change the way the body and the brain sense pain and provide therapeutic benefits, despite the risks. Heroin, on the other hand, is illegal and isn’t used medicinally.

To understand how heroin can affect someone using it, it’s helpful to consider the short- and long-term psychological effects of heroin. In the short term, when someone uses heroin it quickly travels to their brain, where it binds to the opioid receptors and triggers a flood of neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters like dopamine, are responsible for making someone experience a “high” or feelings of euphoria.

Some of the same neurotransmitters are released when people eat or exercise, but with heroin, the levels of these neurotransmitters are higher and artificially inflated. In larger doses, prescription opioids can have the same effect.

Following the euphoric high that occurs with heroin use, someone will start to feel very relaxed, drowsy and anxiety-free. While this isn’t necessarily a “high,” some people enjoy this feeling as well. They feel like it can relieve their worries and they may use heroin as a way to self-medicate certain mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression.

The brain is conditioned to recreate the flood of feel-good brain chemicals— something that it likely wants to repeat. Addiction is a psychological condition in which the balance of chemicals in the brain and the brain’s pathways have been altered to perpetuate a cycle of continued drug use. It’s a psychological scenario that some people are more predisposed to than others and it can be difficult to treat. Addiction is one of the most profound and severe psychological effects of heroin and it can happen quickly.

Over time, there are other psychological effects of heroin that can begin to occur. The brain becomes unable to experience pleasure in natural ways. When people stop using heroin, they may deal with psychological side effects like anxiety and depression because their brain doesn’t produce neurotransmitters naturally and it can take time for the brain to regain its natural functionality. Some additional psychological effects of heroin use include:

  • Excessive fatigue
  • Loss of libido
  • Shallow or slow breathing
  • Impaired decision making
  • Impaired ability to learn new information
  • Increased problems with impulse control
  • Difficulty responding to stress

There are psychological side effects of opioids that occur when someone is going through withdrawal as well. Side effects are usually the direct opposite of the impact of heroin. For example, someone experiencing withdrawal may feel restless and irritable or highly anxious. While many of the psychological effects of heroin withdrawal end after a few days, some can persist for months.

The psychological effects of heroin usage result in a change in brain physiology. There can be shifts and imbalances in neuron and hormone systems, particularly in people who use heroin frequently and in large amounts. These psychological effects of heroin can be reversed, but it does take time. With very heavy and long-term use, heroin can also lead to changes in decision-making, behavior regulation, and stress response.

It’s difficult to reverse the effects of heroin, but the sooner someone seeks treatment, the more effective the treatment can be. The longer or more heavily someone uses heroin, the more profound the psychological effects are likely to be.

If you or someone you know is struggling with heroin addiction, help is available. At The Recovery Village, a team of professionals can design an individualized treatment plan to address substance use and co-occurring disorders. Call and speak with a representative to learn more about which treatment program could work for you.