Research on the Connection Between Stress and Substance Abuse
According to Sinha & Jastreboff, stress is a key risk factor in addiction, recovery maintenance, and relapse. This conclusion has been reaffirmed many times in research and shows a clear connection between stress and substance abuse. A stressful life combined with a lack of coping skills can contribute to addiction. It may also lead to relapse in many ways, starting with a greater reliance on self-medication.
Studies show that the greater the number of stressors to which an individual is exposed, the greater the chances of addiction during their lives. In 2015, an economist named Deaton published a study that showed that under-educated white Americans who struggle in the job market in early adulthood are likely to experience a “cumulative disadvantage” over time. The study goes on to assess their health issues personal problems later in life and found that these factors had a greater number of drug overdoses, alcohol-related liver disease, and suicide.
The strong linkage between stress and addiction is supported by the self-medication theory, which suggests that someone might turn to drugs to cope with tension associated with any number of life stressors. Alternatively, they may take to drugs to relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression resulting from a traumatic event. For them, substance abuse serves as a way to mask or deal with stress, depression, or anxiety. The drugs act as a means to regulate effects and soothe psychological distress rather than finding ways to cope with these influences through behavioral counseling. These studies also showed that in instances of high emotional stress, there was a great incidence of loss of control over impulses and a distinct rise in one’s inability to delay gratification. This is the perfect example of how substance abuse and stress are inexorably linked.
Physiologically speaking, chronic stress has shown evidence of a decrease in the gray matter volume in the brain, a region that is associated with cognitive control and stress regulation. The part of the prefrontal cortex that is involved in deliberative cognition simply shuts down when it deals with stress. The stressed brain loses the ability to process stress, develop ways to deal with the stress and tend to give in to their impulses (e.g. smoking, overeating, alcohol and prescription drug abuse) as a way of coping with daily stress. Programs like cognitive-behavioral therapy and dialectical behavior therapy can help reconfigure how we deal with stress.
The Science Behind the Connection Between Stress and Substance Abuse
In a white paper published by Quinn Dombrowski (Boredom, CC BY-SA 2.0), he noted that stress normally refers to adversity or hardship such as poverty or grief. That may seem obvious, but he went on to discuss the biology behind it.
He noted that biologically, stressful events cause a rise in blood levels of stress hormones (such as cortisol). The old “fight-or-flight” axiom is the normal response to stress. Basically, in a fight or flight situation, all the blood goes to the muscles so that you’re ready for action.
Varying Levels of Stress
It is important to distinguish between chronic and normal stress. Moderate and challenging stressors with limited duration are sometimes perceived to be pleasant. In fact, some individuals seek “stressful” situations (sensation-seekers or seeking out novel and highly stimulating experiences). These situations promote the release of stress hormones. Think of things like rollercoasters, bungee jumping, and other action sports.
However, intense, unpredictable, prolonged stressors (e.g., interpersonal conflict, loss of loved ones, unemployment) produce learned helplessness and depressive-like symptoms. These stressors are far different than self-imposed stressors and require professional mental health treatment. If it goes on long enough, chronic stress increases the risk of developing depression. Additionally, it adds to a whole range of other maladies ranging from the common cold and influenza to tension headaches, grinding teeth, or muscular tension (which is why a massage is a legit way to relieve tension).
Workplace stress can become almost routine. The demands of the job, the ability to have control over decisions, and the degree of social support within the workplace all play a role in how a person is exposed to stressors. Some people can cope with a steady amount of stress, others breakdown at even minor setbacks. People who find themselves in jobs where they don’t perceive themselves to have a lot of control are susceptible to developing clinical anxiety and depression, as well as stress-related medical conditions like ulcers and diabetes Job stresses themselves are not harmful. What matters is how the person appraises (interprets) the stress and how he or she copes with it. One can use reappraisal as a coping strategy by viewing situations differently (e.g., it is no longer a big deal). One can also cope with stress by smoking, drinking, and overeating.
What is important is the meaning that the event or circumstance has for the individual. This seems to point to a simple conclusion: people who are taught to cope with stress early on in life are far better prepared to manage it. Those who aren’t can collapse under even the slightest strain. The people in the latter group are far, far more likely to succumb to substance abuse and stress is their excuse. There is solid evidence for the connection between chronic stress and the motivation to abuse addictive substances.
Trauma in early childhood is also an important key factor for making people more vulnerable in later life to bouts of stress. In studies, research has found that the link from early adversity to later life problems runs through social epigenetics. The studies showed that high levels of stress that are experienced in early life can cause “methylation” of key genes that control the stress system. That is to say, early, severe stress can actually alter our genetics. When this happens, we live in a constant state of emergency.
Studies have also shown that adverse childhood experiences such as physical and sexual abuse, neglect, domestic violence, and family dysfunction are associated with increased risk for addiction. These problems, when not confronted, are internalized. They’re not gone, they’re lingering in the background. They serve as a foundation that moves one’s tolerance to new stressors lower. When things get too hot, the whole kettle boils over.
Experiences with Stress
People with an unhappy marriage, have dissatisfaction with employment, or suffer through harassment, also report increased rates of addiction. The experience of poor parental interaction during childhood and adolescence (childhood abuse and neglect) indirectly increases the risk of addiction through decreased self-control. Young adults at risk for substance abuse are known to have decreased self-control and emotional control. We’re all familiar with someone who seemed depressed, or full of rage, or just disconnected. For those that turn to addiction having come from these situations, their addictive behavior is the result of their experiences and the environments in which they were brought up. Substance abuse and stress go hand in hand. There is a prevalent connection between stress and substance abuse.
Find Help for the Connection Between Stress and Substance Abuse
Recovery programs are available at Renaissance Recovery to deal with the connection between stress and substance abuse. Dual diagnosis treatment programs address any underlying mental health reasons for substance abuse. Contact us to learn more about stress and to participate in the following programs:
- Medication-assisted treatment
- Intensive outpatient program
- Addiction therapy services
- Holistic therapy programs
Call 866.330.9449 to speak with specialists about breaking the connection between stress and substance abuse. Recovery from stress and addiction is possible.