Does Addiction Impact Emotional Maturity?
Humans are emotional creatures. We experience joy, sorrow, excitement, stress – a vast array of strong feelings. As we age, we gain the ability to regulate our emotions and control our responses to life’s obstacles. This is called emotional maturity.
You’ve probably heard the old adage that an addict is “frozen” at the age when they first began using. Is this true? How does addiction affect a person’s emotional maturity? We’ll explain this connection in today’s blog post.
Substance Use as a Coping Mechanism
Many people who develop a chemical dependency begin drinking or using drugs in their teenage years. This is a turbulent time in a young person’s life – hormonal changes, stress, and a whole host of “firsts” can lead to powerful emotions. If a teenager lacks the ability to work through their feelings, they may turn to an unhealthy coping mechanism like drugs or alcohol.
We develop emotional maturity by facing life head-on and overcoming our problems. This is how each person learns and grows. When someone turns to substance use to cope with their issues, their emotional growth grinds to a halt. They have found a “good enough” solution for uncomfortable sensations and will not have to build their listening skills, problem-solving abilities, or other requirements for adult life until they get sober. This stunted maturity, often called arrested development, is a hallmark of addiction.
Neurobiological Changes Caused by Addiction
Drugs and alcohol also cause changes to the brain. Any level of substance use activates the brain’s reward system. In particular, dopamine levels are altered. This is the neurotransmitter that helps people to feel relaxed, happy, and carefree. There are also significant disruptions to the basal ganglia, the prefrontal cortex, and the extended amygdala.
These disruptions result in:
- Increased incentive salience, or substance-associated cues that trigger drug-seeking or alcohol-seeking behavior;
- Reduced functioning of the brain’s executive control systems, which are in control of decision-making and emotional regulation; and
- Reduced sensitivity of the brain’s pleasure and reward systems coupled with an increased activation of the neural pathways for stress.
When a person begins to misuse substances more often, these portions of the brain experience a slowdown in development. This prolonged alteration can result in lasting feelings of immaturity and difficulty in moderating one’s emotions.
The “Peter Pan” of Partying
Other research points to the act of substance abuse contributing to self-reported feelings of immaturity. The University of Missouri-Columbia has found that heavy drinkers tend to find themselves alone as they age.
While behaviors like vomiting and blacking out are more socially acceptable among study participants in their twenties, those in their thirties are more likely to feel immature for their age. This is because a majority of their peer group has settled down and no longer participates in this lifestyle.
Lead researcher Rachel Winograd explained, “We interpreted our findings to suggest that, at 25, drinking is more culturally acceptable. Young adults are out at the bars with their friends and drinking is a bonding experience. But by 29, when many of their peers have settled down, individuals who still drink heavily may start to view themselves as ‘Peter Pans’ of partying, who never fully matured.”
How can those caught in a cycle of addiction and immaturity find emotional sobriety?
Improving Emotional Maturity in Recovery
Fortunately, it is fully possible to break free of arrested development and advance a person’s emotional maturity in addiction recovery. By attending an accredited treatment program, individuals gain access to a variety of therapies for improved well-being.
Treatment programs like Lakeside-Milam include time for one-on-one therapy sessions. In counseling, residents are able to discuss their struggles, gain a deeper understanding of their emotions, and unpack unhealthy thought processes. A clinician can also provide constructive coping mechanisms that the client can use whenever they encounter a challenge.
Group and Family Therapy
To become more emotionally mature, it isn’t enough to reflect on one’s own feelings. Group counseling sessions help people in early recovery to learn to listen, hear different perspectives, and focus on others. This is also true in family therapy sessions, where a person in treatment is able to understand how their choices impact others.
Establishing a Sober Support Network
Stability is crucial to recovery. Integrating into 12-Step meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous can be incredibly helpful for those looking to promote their personal accountability, maturity, and responsibility. These skills will lay the groundwork for lasting sobriety.
Commit to Your Emotional Sobriety
As people remain sober and begin facing their problems, they will begin developing emotional maturity. Seeking a structured, proven program can be a safe and effective way to streamline the process of recovery. Contact Lakeside-Milam for more information about individual and group therapy opportunities in the Pacific Northwest.