Cocaine use is a serious problem throughout the UK. In 2020, powder cocaine was reported to be the second most widely used drug in England and Wales (behind cannabis), with 2.6% of people aged 16-49 estimated to have used the drug the previous year. Many people struggle with their cocaine – but what exactly is cocaine, and is it physically addictive?
What is Cocaine?
Cocaine is derived from the leaves of the coca plant, which have been used for thousands of years for their stimulant effect. The process to separate purified cocaine (also known as hydrochloride) was developed over a hundred years ago. In the modern day, cocaine is used in two main forms. The first is powdered hydrochloride salt, which is snorted or injected. A crystal form of cocaine which is generally smoked (sometimes known as crack cocaine, freebase or rocks) has also become increasingly popular.
Cocaine acts as a short-lived central nervous system stimulant, as well as a local anaesthetic. Some people seek out the effects of cocaine as it can produce feelings such as:
- Euphoria and excitement
- Mental alertness/wakefulness
- Increased sensitivity to sight, sound and touch
The ‘buzz’ from cocaine is short-lived and will typically only last for an average of 30-40 minutes. There may also be negative effects such as anxiety and panic, as well as physical effects including raised heart rate and nausea.
Understanding Cocaine Addiction
In order to understand cocaine addiction, it is important to understand the differences between psychological addiction and physical addiction, or dependence.
The American Society of Addiction Medicine says: “Addiction is a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences. People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviours that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences.”
It’s worth noting that behaviours such as gambling can be addictive for some people. They are not physically addicted to the activity but will continue to gamble in a compulsive manner despite harmful consequences. Some drugs – including cocaine – are also linked mainly to psychological addiction, while others (such as alcohol and opioids such as heroin) produce a combination of psychological addiction and physical dependency.
Physical dependence occurs when your body becomes used to the presence of a certain drug and adjusts itself to allow for that presence. When it is removed, you may experience severe physical withdrawal symptoms. Alcohol, for example, is depressant and heavy or long-term usage will see your system produce more chemicals to help maintain energy and alertness.
When the alcohol is taken out of the equation, you will suddenly have too many of these chemicals in your system. This can lead to a range of physical and mental withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, shakes, nausea, sweating and raised blood pressure. At the most serious end of the spectrum, it can even cause seizures.
Cocaine abuse can cause some physical withdrawal symptoms and effects on the body but is generally more associated with psychological addiction and withdrawal symptoms.
What Causes Addiction to Cocaine?
Using cocaine produces a flood of the neurotransmitter dopamine, a chemical in the brain that influences your mood and is also linked with reward and motivation. The high can be intensely pleasurable and, because the cocaine effects are so short-lived, users will often want to recreate the feelings immediately.
Repeated use of cocaine can result in the user building up a tolerance, meaning they need to use even more for the same effect. Eventually, other things that they used to find pleasurable can fade away in comparison. Securing and using cocaine can become a priority, and users may put this before relationships, friends, family, work and other activities. At the same time, they may begin to experience an intense and unpleasant ‘comedown’ when they do not use the drug.
As well as chasing the initial feelings of pleasure, using cocaine can change the chemistry of the brain. The exact process is complex and not fully understood but it is believed that the flooding of dopamine has a long-term effect on the brain’s limbic system – a set of interconnected regions that regulate pleasure and motivation.
All these factors combine to make overcoming addiction to cocaine extremely challenging, especially without expert help and support for drug addiction.
Treatment for Cocaine Addiction
The good news is that addiction can be successfully treated like many other diseases and long-term conditions. Cocaine treatment can differ from treatment for addiction to drugs like alcohol and heroin because the detox process does not generally involve severe physical withdrawal symptoms.
Users can still experience intense cravings, however, along with a range of psychological withdrawal symptoms including:
- Irritability and mood swings
- Lack of concentration
- Slowed thoughts and movements
- Fatigue, insomnia or increased sleeping
This stage can be extremely difficult and many people attempting to quit cocaine on their own will fall at this hurdle – going back to the drug to satisfy the cravings and temporarily get rid of the withdrawal symptoms.
Tackling a cocaine addiction generally requires a lot of support and help to address the psychological aspects of the addiction. Groups like Narcotics Anonymous or Cocaine Anonymous UK can offer support while evidence-led addiction recovery programmes can help you to explore the root causes of your drug abuse and deal with every aspect of the addiction.
Overcoming Cocaine Addiction
Cocaine is often seen as a ‘party drug’ and it can help to remove yourself from the people, places and situations associated with your cocaine usage. Support groups can also be very useful for many people.
If you are serious about beating a cocaine addiction, however, it is almost always best to seek professional help at a cocaine rehab. This may involve a community-based treatment programme via local drug and alcohol services but residential rehab can also be an option. This places you in a safe, secure environment where you can focus on your recovery and complete an intensive course of addiction therapy treatments.