What's Your Relationship with Alcohol?
By Brenda K. Nelson DSW, LCSW
Prevention & Wellness Program Coordinator, Libertyville High School
You'll likely answer this question differently depending on your life experiences, your future goals, your age, and your peer group.
Things that factor into every high school student's relationship to alcohol (or other substances):
Substance abuse in your family
How you cope with mental health challenges
What your friends do
What your parents do and say
If you DON'T drink.... you are doing the best possible thing for your brain, your mental health, your body, your performance, and your future. There is a mountain of research that supports this.
If you DO drink..... consider pausing and contemplating how it might be impacting your life, your mental and physical health, and your academic, athletic, or artistic performance. Alcohol and other substances affect your brain more at this age than they do when you are older. If you feel unable to stop, please reach out for help.
"But it's fun!!" -- See below for a student's take on this point.
A Moment of Elation for a Lifetime of Numbness
By Andrew Clark
Libertyville High School Class of 2021
Marijuana. Alcohol. Nicotine. Adderall. Painkillers. Notice any commonalities? They’re all drugs, sure, but more importantly, they’re all drugs that overwhelm the brain with dopamine. Dopamine has various functions ranging from movement initiation to hormone regulation. During drug and alcohol usage, dopamine’s primary effect concerns our brain’s reward system. These substances are designed to flood our accumbens, the brain segment responsible for responding to rewarding stimuli, with dopamine. These accumbens, in turn, produce positive, rewarding feelings. In other words, it gets us high. There are a plethora of arguments against substance use in minors: it decreases performance, reduces long-term memory, has the risk of incarceration, etc. However, none of these compare to what is arguably the largest risk involved in substance abuse: a loss of happiness, and a numbness to the world around us.
Consider these two scenarios: You’re walking downtown, heading to the store to buy your new favorite item that was just released yesterday. The car horns blare around you and your legs are fatiguing. You zip up your coat as the cold air assaults your skin. Finally, you arrive at the store, only to realize that it’s closed for the day. You turn around, dreading the walk back home. Now, let’s try that again: You’re walking downtown, giddy with excitement about the release of your new favorite item. You hear the mesmerizing combination of birds chirping and leaves crunching under your shoes and the city sounds fade to the background. The brisk autumn air meets your skin, and you zip up your coat as the smell of autumn fills you with a sense of tranquility. You arrive at the store, only to realize that it’s closed for the day. Turning around, you look forward to passing the colorful trees on the way home and trying again tomorrow.
Same story, entirely different mindset. Wait a second, isn’t this article supposed to be about teen drug use, not positive attitudes? Correct, but they’re actually far more related than you might think. Our brain has an incredible ability to habituate and adapt to new stimuli so that we can appropriately react to future stimuli. The more powerful and frequent a stimulus is, the quicker our brains habituate to it. Thousands of years ago, fruit acted as the most impressive and stimulating food product. Today, it’s simply a part of the food pyramid; when our brains are constantly surrounded by cookies, cakes, and a myriad of synthetic sweeteners, the comparatively mild fruit fails to meet the new standard. The same is true on a higher level in reference to drugs and alcohol. As teens begin to use substances, their brains quickly adapt to the overwhelming levels of dopamine flooding the brain’s reward center. Instead of being satiated by these massive dopamine releases, the artificial high becomes the new standard. The things that used to cause small dopamine releases and feelings of happiness (in the previous example, birds chirping, the crunch of leaves, the smell of autumn) become insignificant in comparison to these substances. Immediately, the brain connects the stimulus of drugs with the reward of massive dopamine releases, and the first stage of addiction is already in place. As the substance is used more frequently and these massive dopamine releases become increasingly common, the brain builds up a tolerance and more substance is needed to cause the desired effect. This cycle of decreased pleasure from daily activities and increased desires for substances result, in the strongest cases, in some combination of addiction and anhedonia -- the inability to feel pleasure at all.
Fortunately, there is always a way out. Thanks to our brains’ incredible ability to learn and adapt to the stimuli around us, the same effect takes place when someone stops using substances. As the massive, unnatural dopamine releases stop entering the brain, the standard for the amount of dopamine required to feel pleasure begins to drop back down to its normal level. So, why not just participate in substance use now and stop later? Well, for starters, addiction, memory loss, decreased performance, and legality are still very real risks in any kind of substance usage. In relation to dopamine releases, while your threshold for pleasure will begin to drop as substances stop entering the body, it will never return to its original level. Additionally, due to the brain’s incredibly strong reward system, that substance will forever be associated with massive dopamine releases, resulting in temptations that last a lifetime. Teens are especially vulnerable to these powerful temptations. The prefrontal cortex-the part of the brain responsible for conscious decision-making--is not fully developed in humans until our mid-twenties. This underdeveloped system along with the strong social pressures faced by teenagers often results in an inability to stop participating in substance abuse, eventually leading to addiction and anhedonia. The best way to avoid this? Simply don’t start. By avoiding the initial temptation to use substances, all of the aforementioned risks and problems can be largely avoided. Life is a beautiful thing, so be kind to yourself and take the opportunity to enjoy every part of it, from the widest canyon to the smallest snowflake.
Sapolsky, Robert M. Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.
“No drug or amount of money or favoritism can ever give you belief in yourself.”