What is the link between stress and addiction?
Stress and Addiction have a stronger connection than one would generally think. For those who are dealing with high levels of stress in their daily lives, alcohol, and drugs are often used to diminish the symptoms of stress, sometimes leading to substance abuse and addiction. People who have experienced trauma may take this to the extreme, using alcohol or drugs to dull anxiety, depression, and other chronic symptoms of traumatic stress, quickly becoming dependent on the substances to be able to feel good at all.
The scientific piece ‘Chronic Stress, Drug Use, and Vulnerability to Addiction’, published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, stated that “stress is a well-known risk factor in the development of addiction and addiction relapse vulnerability. A series of population-based and epidemiological studies have identified specific stressors and individual-level variables that are predictive of substance use and abuse”.
Stress is a fact of daily life for most people. Issues in relationships, jobs, traffic, and financial challenges are just some of the daily pressures that can result in feeling stressed. However, while most people have experienced stress, not everyone understands what happens when the body goes through the stress response.
Stress is a physical and emotional response to a perceived danger. It evolved as a reaction to direct threats to life and health, at a time when survival was much more difficult, and these types of dangers were encountered daily. When a person perceives danger, the body releases chemicals that increase readiness to fight the threat or run from it. This readiness involves:
- Jumpiness and heightened awareness
- When the stressor is gone, the body then releases more chemicals to counter this response, returning body function to normal
- Increased heart rate and breathing
- Dilated pupils
- Decreased digestion and immune system function
These days, perceived danger takes on different forms. A person may have the same stress response to the fear of losing a job that an ancestor may have had encountered a large predator. Because today’s perceived dangers are nearly constant, stress has become a chronic condition for a large number of people.
Stress and Different Types of Addictions
Trying to ease stress with drug abuse is dangerous. Stress is one of the most common triggers for experiencing setbacks related to recovery. However, for a person with a mild substance use disorder or who is only using substances socially, stress can be the tipping point leading to developing a substance use disorder. These are the effects of different substances when they are used for people intending to relieve stress:
- Stress and Alcohol: Drinking alcohol to relieve stress is a common practice. Despite the anecdotal suggestion that drinking can help a person unwind, drinking alcohol to cope with stress is ineffective. Physical side effects of alcohol use paired with symptoms of stress can wreak havoc on the body. In addition to potential concerns about health conditions, turning to alcohol every time a stressful situation arises prevents the development of natural coping skills.
- Stress and Marijuana: A person using marijuana will likely report feeling a decrease in stress and anxiety. While this outcome may be true for some people, the relationship between marijuana and stress is more complex. When the effects of marijuana wear off, a rebound effect of increased anxiety is likely. Many long-term marijuana users report feeling unable to handle routine stressors.
- Stress and Smoking: Stress smoking is common. Many people feel that smoking a cigarette is a stress reliever. While this may seem true to a person who has already developed nicotine dependence, beginning an association of smoking and stress may increase the risk of becoming addicted in people not yet dependent on nicotine. Repeatedly turning to a substance such as nicotine in times of stress creates an association of needing that substance to cope.
- Stress and Stimulants: When overwhelmed with stress, the thought of taking a drug and suddenly having the energy to be able to complete more tasks in less time may seem appealing. The hopes of reducing workload often motivate people to use stimulants, especially prescription stimulants. One of the largest problems with the stress and stimulant connection is the high risk of developing an addiction.
Stress is one of the most common risk factors of relapse. Experiencing chronic stress can also increase the likelihood that a person will develop a substance use disorder. Stress and drug abuse statistics can help clarify the stress and substance use link. Even after long periods of abstinence, experiencing stress increases thoughts of returning to drug use and increases the likelihood of relapse. Studies have shown that even when substance use is not present before experiencing stress, alcohol and other drugs are more likely to be sought out when stress occurs.
Understanding Stress And Addiction
Experiencing chronic stress greatly increases a person’s risk of developing a substance use disorder (suffering from Stress and Addiction). When a person routinely uses drugs to cope with stress, they are less likely to develop healthy coping skills for stress. A person may begin to feel that the only way they can cope with stress is by using drugs. This cycle has the potential to lead to addiction. Others may consciously use drugs as a form of self-medication. This is particularly true for people with chronic stress.
Addiction often appears to be an attempt to deal with stress in a way that doesn’t quite work out for the individual. While you may get some temporary relief from stress through the drug or behavior you become addicted to, that relief is short-lived, so you need more to continue coping with stress. And because many addictions bring with them further stress, such as the withdrawal symptoms experienced when a drug wears off, yet more of the addictive substance or behavior is needed to cope with the additional stress involved.
From this perspective, it is clear that some people are more vulnerable to addictions than others, simply by the amount of stress in their lives. For example, there is now a well-established link between childhood abuse, whether physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, and the later development of addictions to drugs and behaviors. Childhood abuse is extremely stressful for the child but continues to cause problems as that child matures into an adult, with consequential problems with relationships and self-esteem. Not everyone who was abused as a child develops an addiction, and not everyone with addiction was abused in childhood.
Treatment for Stress and Addiction
It can be extremely important to include stress management therapies as part of treatment for substance abuse. However, not all treatment centers take this necessity into account, making it difficult to completely manage the causes of substance abuse in an individual’s life and increasing the chance of relapse after treatment is over. When stress is a factor in substance abuse, finding a treatment center that can help manage that stress is a vital element in achieving recovery that will last for years to come.
Because stress has such a strong effect on addiction, it is important that substance abuse treatment also involves therapies that help people learn to manage stress. To this end, many of the therapies used in research-based addiction treatment programs include aspects of stress management. This includes:
- Exercise: Regular workouts can help people lower levels of anxiety. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, exercise causes the body to produce endorphins, which act as natural painkillers and can lift mood, as well as improve quality of sleep. All of this can help ease stress. At the same time, these chemicals can help diminish cravings for drugs or alcohol, ease the discomforts of withdrawal, and develop a more positive outlook during and after treatment. All of this can help prevent relapse into substance use.
- Meditation and mindfulness: A research review from the Journal of the American Medical Association demonstrates that mindfulness meditation can result in lowered anxiety, depression, pain, and stress. At the same time, meditation can help a person remain calm in the face of substance use triggers, and soothe the feelings that lead to cravings.
- Behavioral therapy: Therapies that are practiced in addiction treatment, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and other approaches, help a person learn to recognize behavior patterns and their typical responses to situations. By recognizing these patterns, an individual can then learn to modify the behavioral response. This is valuable both for managing stress and for avoiding substance use in the face of triggering events or situations. A specific branch of therapy, trauma-focused CBT, can help people with post-traumatic stress disorder work through the trauma issues that may lead to increased daily stress and substance abuse.
- Peer support: Peer support groups, such as 12-Step groups, are the basis of much of addiction treatment. These groups have been shown to promote accountability, motivation, and commitment, which improve a person’s ability to avoid relapse into drug use. At the same time, peer support has been shown to decrease levels of perceived stress.
Reclaim your life from Stress and Addiction.
Stress and Addiction can cause significant health, social, and economic problems that should not be taken lightly. We Level Up Washington treatment center can provide you, or someone you love, the tools to recover from Stress and Addiction simultaneously with professional and safe treatment. Feel free to call us to speak with one of our counselors. We can inform you about this condition by giving you relevant information. Our specialists know what you are going through. Please know that each call is private and confidential.
We Level Up Washington Mental Health Center: Primary Mental Health Treatment with Secondary Co-Occurring Treatments
The We Level Up Washington primary mental health center stands ready to help. Offering secondary treatment programs for underlying conditions like an addiction that frequently fuels harmful behaviors and stress. Taking that first step to get the professional support you need can be life-transforming.
We know how mental health disorders and secondary co-occurring substance abuse diagnoses directly affect one another. The We Level Up Washington treatment center provides recovery programs through science-based mental health treatments that can help you feel better. Call us now for a free mental health evaluation!
Inpatient medical detox and residential primary addiction treatment may be available at affiliated facilities at other We Level Up Treatment Centers locations beyond the Washington treatment facility.
 Sinha R. (2008). Chronic stress, drug use, and vulnerability to addiction. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1141, 105–130. (Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
 Relationship Between Stress And Addiction, Stages And Coping With Stress, Treatment Options – Stress And Addiction » (welevelup.com)