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Connection Between Stress and Substance Abuse

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By: Renaissance Recovery

Medically Reviewed by: Diana Vo, LMFT

Last Updated: 7/1/2021

Woman crying because her stress led to addiction

Authored By: Joe Gilmore

Table of Contents

Stress is your body’s response to external events or changes. Stress can stem from an isolated event, or it can result from an ongoing issue. 

The changes and events that precipitate stress can be good as well as bad. Getting married or starting a new school can be just as stressful as getting divorced or getting ill, just in a different way. 

According to NIMH (the National Institute of Mental Health), there are three primary types of stress

  1. Stress triggered by abrupt negative change
  2. Routine stress triggered by everyday events
  3. Stress induced by a traumatic event

Among these different types of stress, the most commonly encountered include: 

  • Grief
  • Job loss
  • Financial problems
  • Relationship breakups
  • Divorce
  • Moving home
  • Caring for a sick or elderly loved one
  • Traumatic events
  • Mental health disorders like depression or anxiety

When you feel stressed, this is the result of changes taking place in both the body and mind. In the case of the classic “fight-or-flight” reaction, also known as hyperarousal, these changes could be life-saving.

 The changes induced by stress include: 

  • Accelerated heart rate
  • Spike in blood pressure
  • Increased body temperature
  • Quicker breathing rate
  • Improved focus and attention
  • Diminished need for sleep and food

People cope with stress in different ways, some healthy and some maladaptive, like abusing substances. Unfortunately, drugs and stress management do not make an effective partnership. 

According to NIDA (the National Institute on Drug Abuse), stress can heighten the chances you will use drugs. Some research also suggests that stress can inflame problematic drug use. 

Stress is also widely accepted to be a risk factor for addiction. 

How, then, are stress and addiction interlinked?

Relation Between Stress And Substance Abuse

Drugs of different types can cause chemical changes to occur in the brain. This happens when drugs interact with and activate chemical messengers (neurotransmitters) in the brain concerned with the following areas: 

  • Memory
  • Learning
  • Impulse control
  • Emotional regulation
  • Happiness
  • Decision-making
  • Stress management

In the case of CNS depressant drugs like opioids and benzodiazepines, for instance, you can expect the following effects:

  • Decreased respiration and heart rate
  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Drop in body temperature
  • Enhanced relaxation and sedation

Opioids and benzodiazepines include a broad spread of substances, including: 

  • Heroin
  • Prescription painkillers
  • Sleep aids
  • Sedatives
  • Anti-anxiety medications
  • Tranquilizers

Different Substances and Stress

Sedatives and tranquilizers both increase levels of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) in the brain. GABA is an amino acid that occurs naturally and disrupts and slows the stress response, while also depressing the fight-or-flight response, leading to reduced levels of anxiety and stress. For these reasons, both sedatives and tranquilizers come with a high potential for abuse.

For those suffering from elevated stress levels or chronic stress, using substances to manage the symptoms is commonplace. Self-medicating like this will provide nothing but fleeting relief. 

When you are stressed, levels of norepinephrine and adrenaline increase. This can fill you more energy and excitement, decrease appetite, and help you to stay awake longer. Many stimulant drugs have the same effect. Stimulants include: 

  • Meth
  • Cocaine
  • Prescription ADHD medications

Beyond this, most drugs act on your brain’s pleasure and reward center. This causes an initial burst of euphoria, commonly described as a high. The drug high is triggered by increased levels of serotonin and dopamine flooding the brain. 

Over time, sustained drug use leads to your brain becoming dependent on the substance in question to keep its chemical messengers in check. Often, drug dependence follows, regularly leading to drug addiction.

When you are dependent on drugs, the absence of the substance in question can cause intense cravings and uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms often deliver the opposite of the drug’s rewarding effects, with insomnia and depression replacing wakefulness and euphoria. Many people continue using drugs simply to ward off these withdrawal symptoms. 

Over time, chronic Substance Abuse will exacerbate rather than alleviate stress.

Many people use substances to self-medicate the symptoms of mental health disorders like depression and anxiety, another way in which stress and drug addiction are related. When self-medication fails to achieve the intended results, stress is usually heightened in someone masking untreated mental health symptoms with substance abuse. 

PTSD is a form of anxiety disorder stemming from someone witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event. This can result in flashbacks and an extended inability to turn off the stress response. According to the VA (US Department of Veterans Affairs), one-fifth of veterans diagnosed with PTSD also struggle with addiction. Of those veterans seeking treatment for addiction, one-third also suffer from PTSD.

Overcoming Stress and Drug Addiction at Renaissance

If you have been abusing alcohol, prescription medication, or illicit drugs as a response to feeling stressed, you don’t need to panic. Here at Renaissance Recovery, we specialize in helping people just like you to cope with life’s everyday stressors more confidently. 

The first thing you’ll need to do is detox so you are substance-free. If required, we can help you with a medically-supervised detox, mitigating withdrawal symptoms and cravings with FDA-approved medications. 

Our highly personalized outpatient treatment programs for alcohol use disorder and substance use disorder at our Orange County rehab can help you withdraw from substances as comfortably as possible. In combination with medication as appropriate, you’ll also have access to a range of psychotherapy like CBT and DBT. These forms of therapy will help you to identify your triggers for substance abuse, while at the same time learning healthier coping strategies to help you deal with stress on an ongoing basis. 

With relaxation techniques like medication and mindfulness, as well as experiential adventure therapy to take you out of your comfort zone, reclaim a life where stress doesn’t bring you to your knees or have you reaching for a bottle. Reach out to the Renaissance team today at 866.330.9449.

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Diana Vo, LMFT

Diana is an addiction expert and licensed marriage and family therapist who has been in the field of mental health for over 10 years.

Joseph Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country