Whether stress stems from a single isolated event or an ongoing issue, this is simply your body’s natural response to external changes and unfortunately there is a connection between stress and addiction.
The changes or events that trigger stress are not just limited to negative changes. Going away to college or getting married are both huge positives, and can also be enormously stressful.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) recognizes three main types of stress:
- Trauma-induced stress
- Stress triggered by a sudden negative change
- Routine stress resulting from everyday events
The most common forms of these different types of stress encountered are:
- Job loss
- Relationship breakups
- Financial problems
- Caring for sick or senior loved one
- Mental health disorders
- Traumatic external events
When you feel stressed, your body undergoes the following changes:
- Heart rate accelerates
- Blood pressure spikes
- Breathing rate speeds up
- Body temperature increases
- Focus and attention improves
- Need for food and sleep diminishes
People use various coping methods to deal with stress. While some of these are healthy coping methods, others are maladaptive. Substance abuse, for instance, may serve to temporarily remove stress, but you will do nothing to address the route cause of the stressor.
While there is still robust and ongoing research in this area, it is widely believed that stress is a notable risk factor for addiction. Luckily, there are sober living homes and addiction treatment programs to help people who do deal with an addiction.
How does stress relate to substance abuse, then?
What is the Relationship Between Stress and Addiction?
Different types of drugs can trigger chemical changes in the brain. These changes occur when the substances interact with neurotransmitters in your brain. Neurotransmitter are chemical messengers related to the following areas:
- Emotional regulation
- Impulse control
As an example, CNS depressants like alcohol, benzodiazepines, and opioids cause the following effects:
- Increased sedation and relaxation
- Lowered body temperature
- Drop in blood pressure
- Reduced heart rate and respiration rate
With sedatives and tranquilizers, using these medications increases levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. GABA is an important amino acid that occurs naturally. It serves to slow and interfere with the stress response. GABA also helps to depress the hyperarousal (fight-or-flight) response. Resultantly, you can expect reduced levels of stress and anxiety. The way sedative and tranquilizers deliver these effects means they both have a strong potential for abuse.
For many people experiencing chronic stress or acutely elevated stress levels, using substances to manage symptoms is not uncommon. Unfortunately, this type of self-medication provides nothing but the most fleeting relief. Substance abuse will do nothing to address the underlying cause of stress, and over time you’ll inflame symptoms rather than alleviating them.
If you feel stress, this means levels of both adrenaline and norepinephrine are increasing in your body. You’ll be able to stay awake for longer, feel less hungry, and you’ll be filled with excitement and energy. This is the same effect delivered by many stimulants like meth, cocaine, and prescription medications for ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder).
More widely, most drugs disrupt the normal functioning of the pleasure and reward center of your brain. This is what leads to the drug high, a feeling of surging euphoria as the effects of the substance take hold. Feeling high from drugs is the result of increased levels of dopamine and serotonin bathing your brain.
If you continuing using drugs long-term, whether alcohol, prescription medications, or illicit drugs, you run the risk of your brain becoming dependent on the substance in question to regulate its chemical messengers and to keep them in check. Drug dependence often follows, and can lead to alcohol use disorder or substance use disorder developing.
Being dependent on a substance means that the absence of this substance can trigger severe cravings, at the same time as causing adverse withdrawal symptoms. Often, drug withdrawal symptoms are the precise opposite of the rewarding effects the substance delivers. Instead of euphoria, relaxation, or wakefulness, you may experience depression, edginess, and disrupted sleep patterns. In many cases, the withdrawal symptoms are so intense that people turn to the substance in question to keep withdrawal symptoms at bay.
Many people abuse substances to self-medicate mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and PTSD, another area in which stress and drug addiction intersect.
Stress and Relapse Prevention
Different people experience different triggers for substance abuse and relapse. Although the cliché of people, places, and things that trigger addiction is sound, this concept doesn’t account for all triggers.
Triggers for addiction can be abstract, and stress can be one of the most powerful triggers for substance abuse.
Despite vigorous research in this field, experts are still unclear about the specifics of the role of stress in addiction. Some researchers suggest the link between stress and substance abuse could be due to the changes in brain activity resulting from drug dependence. Sustained substance abuse can alter both stress pathways and dopamine pathways in the brain. These changes can ultimately impair normal brain functioning, particularly when your stress levels are high.
For many addicted to drink or drugs, substance abuse becomes the default coping mechanism. This can be tough to shake, even after learning healthier coping skills during recovery.
Stress and Addiction Recovery at The District
For many people abusing prescription medication, alcohol, or illicit drugs, this substance use is triggered by stress. Fortunately, we can help you to break this vicious cycle with our evidence-based treatment programs for alcohol and drug addiction as well as addiction to prescription medications like opioids or benzos.
Before you can address the root cause of your stress, you’ll need to detox and remain substance-free. For severe addictions, a medical detox can help minimize the intensity of withdrawal symptoms while also reducing cravings. This is achieved using FDA-approved medications.
We offer personalised outpatient treatment programs for all types of addictions. If you need outpatient treatment with a greater time commitment, we offer both IOPs (intensive outpatient programs) and PHPs (partial hospitalization programs) to suit your schedule.
As well as delivering medication-assisted treatment as appropriate, you’ll also benefit from individual and group counseling along with psychotherapies like CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) or DBT (dialectical behavior therapy). By diving deeper into the reasons you abuse substances in response to stress, you’ll be better placed to put a stop to this behavior.
Here at TDRC, we also offer access to adventure therapy, holistic therapy, and relaxation techniques like mindfulness and meditation.