There are certain things everyone, no matter what age, struggles with when recovering from substance use disorders. These include things like coping with stress and anxiety, managing cravings, getting healthy, dealing with boredom, building a strong support network, transitioning from treatment to normal life, and, possibly, bouncing back from relapse. Overcoming addiction is not easy at any age, but every phase of life has different challenges that need to be addressed as part of effective addiction treatment. A program tailored to addressing these problems gives clients a better chance of success and gets them off to a good start in life. The following are some challenges younger adults are more likely to face in addiction recovery.
Although we legally become adults at age 18, the brain doesn’t actually finish developing until about the age of 25. The brain’s prefrontal cortex is the last part to develop. Especially important to this process is the thickening of insulating white matter along the neurons that connect the prefrontal cortex to other parts of the brain.
This is a big deal because the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for high-level executive functions, including planning, self-control, foresight, emotional regulation, working memory, and attention. Having a fully mature prefrontal cortex with better connections to other parts of the brain allows you to better make plans and follow through, control your impulses, and make better decisions. That’s why car insurance suddenly gets cheaper when you turn 25. The bad news is, the risky and impulsive behavior more common in younger adults- especially males- increases your risk for addiction and makes recovery much harder. However, if you keep working on it, recovery should get a little easier around age 25.
Most of us don’t learn life skills in any systematic way. We learn by watching our parents, then, when we’re on our own, we pick up new skills haphazardly, mostly by trial and error. If you’re lucky, you know at least one adult who seems capable enough of giving you good advice. People who develop substance use issues at a young age often miss out on developing a lot of life skills. They may be too preoccupied with drugs or alcohol to worry about the mundane skills they would learn if they had gone to college or joined the workforce.
This can be a major challenge for people leaving recovery and having to live on their own for the first time. It’s crucial to have your basic needs met when you leave recovery. That includes having a safe, clean, drug-free place to stay, enough to eat, clean clothes, and access to transportation. People leaving treatment have to learn skills like finding a place to live and finding a job very quickly. That’s why it’s necessary to include life skills education as part of addiction treatment. It’s also helpful for many people to step down to normal life via an intensive outpatient program or sober living facility, so they can have guidance in developing life skills before they’re completely on their own.
Every phase of life has its unique challenges, and for young adults, those challenges typically have to do with leaving home, living on your own, and possibly starting college or work. This is a chaotic time because you suddenly have a lot more freedom and responsibility. Discovering how many bills you have to pay each month just to live can feel overwhelming. Starting a new job or going to college can be incredibly stressful. These kinds of transitions aren’t typically the most stressful times you’ll face in life and they are often tempered by excitement, but for most people, the demands of living on your own requires a lot of adjustment. This can be a bad thing when you’re suddenly free to drink as much as you want or use drugs in your living room.
As a social species, we are all vulnerable to peer pressure, often much more than we would like to think. When we’re not sure what to do, we look to see what the people around us are doing. This tendency is strongest during adolescence, when we value the opinions of our friends more than those of anyone else, especially our parents, but the tendency is still fairly strong in young adults. This is especially true since, as noted above, many adults find themselves in new situations such as college or new jobs, where they don’t really know anyone. If everyone seems to be drinking or using drugs, you’re more likely to go along with that. Young adults also tend to feel more keenly that they’re missing out if they can no longer drink. They may feel lonelier when they can no longer associate with drinking buddies or friends they used to use drugs with, which is why it’s crucial to create strong social support as soon as possible.
When you’re young, you think you’re invincible. You may know rationally that you can get hurt, get sick, or die, but it just doesn’t feel like a real possibility. This is great in that it allows you to take chances and try new things, but it can also work against you if you engage in self-destructive behavior. When you’re drinking heavily every weekend, or every night, you may feel like you’re just being young and having fun and not have any sense that your future is in danger. If you are aware that you have substance use issues, you may not take it quite seriously. You may feel like you can deal with it later. However, the longer you struggle with substance use, the harder it is to recover. It’s hard to appreciate the danger of a substance use disorder when you’re young, so perhaps the best thing to do is to look at how substance use is already affecting your life. If it’s hurting you, don’t wait to do something about it.
Burning Tree West is a transitional college program dedicated to helping adults between the ages of 18 and 29 recover from addiction. Our campus is located in Tucson, Arizona, near the campuses of the University of Arizona and Pima Community College. Our program is designed to help young adults overcome addiction, build foundational life skills, and pursue their educational and career goals. Contact us today for more information.