Substance Abuse and Memory Loss: How to Move Forward

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Even a single instance of substance misuse can lead to potential memory loss or other cognitive impairments. The Western Journal of Medicine reported that substance use disorders (SUDs) involving drugs like ecstasy can cause “altered cerebral function and behavioral change, [ranging] from neuroendocrine impairments to deficits in verbal memory and reasoning, short-term memory and semantic recognition, and visual memory.” 

Most people find the effects of memory problems caused by SUD disruptive and hard to manage. The exact cause of the issue will determine what treatments will be more beneficial. 

Substance Misuse and Memory Issues

The misuse of certain substances can lead to permanent or temporary structural changes in the brain. The most common issues affect prospective memory, working memory, and short-term memory. Areas of the brain impaired by SUD vary depending on the substance and circumstances but frequently involve the following:

  • Hippocampus
  • Neo-cortex
  • Cerebellum
  • Amygdala

Some individuals are more likely than others to develop issues with memory and cognition. Younger people and anyone with pre-existing cognitive disorders are at a higher risk of adverse reactions to substance misuse. Research in Addiction Science and Clinical Practice stated that “the brain regions and neural processes that underlie addiction overlap extensively with those that support cognitive functions, including learning, memory, and reasoning.” A few substances known to cause memory issues include: 

  • Smoking tobacco
  • Alcohol
  • Narcotics
  • Marijuana
  • Stimulants
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Prescription medications like antidepressants, antihistamines, muscle relaxants, anti-seizure drugs, or tranquilizers

Marijuana Misuse and Cognition

Many people think that marijuana is a “harmless” drug because it has relatively mild side effects for most individuals. However, chronic marijuana misuse can cause significant cognitive issues due to high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The Marijuana Research Report: What Are Marijuana’s Long-Term Effects on the Brain? reported that “THC alters how the hippocampus, a brain area responsible for memory formation, processes information.” Marijuana misuse can temporarily or permanently impair memory, learning, and behavior. The effects can impact your ability to learn new tasks or complete everyday responsibilities. 

How Memory Problems Can Impact Recovery 

Memory helps you learn new skills, remember activities you were planning to complete, and focus on current tasks. When cognition and memory are affected by symptoms of SUD or other conditions, you may find yourself having difficulty with the following: 

  • Remembering planned events
  • Completing everyday activities like eating meals or taking medication
  • Remembering names, places, or additional information
  • Putting your thoughts in order
  • Remembering things you have said, read, written, or been told
  • Making sense out of new information

Memory issues can interfere with your ability to hold down a job, complete schoolwork, or fulfill personal obligations. Research on the effects of SUD published in Oxford Journals Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology indicated that time-based cues are the most commonly affected by memory dysfunction. You can avoid issues in your day-to-day life by using healthy coping skills. 

How to Cope When You Have Difficulty Remembering 

Memory issues can be frustrating and frightening. You might feel like you are losing control when you find yourself struggling to keep your thoughts in order. Self-care is essential because your mental health will impact your ability to maintain memories. The higher your stress levels, the harder it will be to focus your thoughts. A few ways you can decrease stress include:

  • Creating a routine to make it easier for you to identify when you may have forgotten to complete specific tasks
  • Using assistive devices like pill dispensers
  • Asking a loved one to give you reminders about important events, activities, or appointments
  • Communicating with the people in your life to let them know when you are struggling

The Benefits of Technology 

Technology can be an excellent tool for coping with memory issues. Hundreds of apps exist that you can program with reminders, alerts, and alarms to help you keep track of the following: 

  • Medication
  • Appointments
  • Reminders to eat and hydrate
  • Hygiene related activities like brushing your teeth or taking a shower

 Treatments and Peer Support

Each case is unique, but prescription medications are available that can reverse some side effects related to memory loss. Individual psychotherapy and self-help groups for individuals with memory problems can also help you cope with the loss, grief, anger, or guilt you may feel. You can use family therapy to navigate close relationships that have been affected by the various symptoms of SUD and co-occurring conditions. 

The brain has a remarkable ability to heal. Brain plasticity, also called neuroplasticity, is the body’s way of reorganizing and growing new neurotransmitters to take the place of damaged ones. You can learn new skills and take medications to help you stay on track with your long-term recovery and day-to-day activities while your brain heals. Memory issues do not have to hold you back from achieving your professional or personal goals.

Memory issues caused by misusing substances like alcohol, prescription medications, or other drugs can interfere with your recovery. You may experience difficulties recalling tasks, appointments, or information about people and places you should know. Memory issues can be debilitating and cause tension in your close relationships, especially when you have difficulty with short-term memory. Short-term memory issues can affect your ability to complete everyday activities. We know how challenging it can be to live with lingering symptoms related to SUD and other conditions. At White House Recovery and Detox, we understand that substance misuse can cause a whole range of physical and mental side effects, including cognitive dysfunction. Our dedicated team can help you find healthy ways to cope during treatment and aftercare. You can recover from substance use disorder and the effects it has on your life. Find out more about our location and services by calling us today at (800) 510-5393.