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The Insidious Connection Between Substance Abuse and Stress

Stress is a normal and inevitable part of life.  We all experience situations or emotions that activate stress responses. Sometimes stress is relatively mild, such as becoming tangled in traffic before an appointment. Other times it’s severe and prolonged, such as the stress experienced by victims of ongoing emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. While we all feel the strain of stress, we react to it in different ways.  Some are able to “roll with the punches” better than others, or find ways to effectively manage their stress, such as with regular exercise. Others, however, feel overwhelmed or defeated.  Their inability to cope with significant and unrelenting stress can lead to alcohol or drug addiction.

Stress Affects the Body and Mind

The effect of stress on the body is complex, touching nearly every major system. When we experience stressful situations, our bodies automatically release hormones that were designed to allow us to react to danger–the classic “fight or flight response.” For example, veins in the skin constrict to send more blood to the major muscles that allow us to flee or defend ourselves.  That physiological response serves us well–if we’re running from a bear or need to quickly pull a child out of harm’s way.

When stress levels get out of control–i.e. when they’re severe or prolonged–it takes a serious toll on your body. Physical symptoms of stress include a vast number of things, including an increased heart rate, nausea, digestive problems and dizziness.

The effects are more than just physical, though. Chronic stress also affects our emotions and behavior. Some people pick up nervous habits, like pacing or nail-biting. Others might become irritable or agitated. A stress overload can also lead people to substance abuse and, ultimately, addiction.

The Link Between Stress and Substance Abuse

Numerous studies have linked stress to alcohol and drug addiction. In fact, chronic stress is a well-known substance abuse risk factor . Researchers believe that stress causes brain changes with the potential to lead to addiction. For example, stress early in life, such as childhood trauma, or stress that’s prolonged and repeated affects development of the prefrontal lobe.  This is the part of the brain that deals with higher-level thinking and impulse control.

In addition, certain mental health disorders, such as depression and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), are strongly linked to alcohol and drug abuse. PTSD can develop in anyone who’s experienced severe trauma, from car accident victims to combat veterans. Other anxiety disorders are also connected to higher rates of addiction.

Researchers have also found that stress levels can play a role in predicting which addicts stay in treatment. Recovering addicts were tested for a specific stress hormone before and after completing a stress-inducing task. The researchers found that patients who later left rehab before their treatment was complete showed post-task stress levels 3.5 times higher than those of patients who completed the rehab program.

Studies suggest that stress levels also contribute to the success of substance abuse recovery. This is likely because the cravings and compulsions of a person in recovery can manifest themselves as stress, thus becoming a trigger for relapse. In one study of cocaine users, stress-induced cravings were found to predict relapse.

How to Manage Stress

You can take positive steps toward eliminating the stress that leads to substance abuse or relapse. The most effective stress management often comes from making healthy lifestyle changes and working with mental health professionals when necessary.

  • Find help for addiction. If you suspect you have a substance abuse problem, don’t wait to seek help. An addictions professional can evaluate your condition, and, if necessary, recommend treatment. Alcohol and drug addiction rehab may include inpatient or outpatient care, individual or group therapy, and a 12-step program.
  • Treat underlying conditions.  Stress can contribute to a myriad of conditions, including PTSD and depression. If stress is impacting your quality of life, talk with a physician or mental health professional. He or she will assess you and recommend any needed treatment. For example, exposure therapy can help reduce PTSD symptoms.  It allows you to gradually feel more at ease in certain stressful situations under safe, controlled circumstances. A therapist might also recommend antidepressants or other medications as part of a comprehensive treatment plan.
  • Avoid drugs and alcohol. Highly stressed people are at risk of developing substance abuse. If you live with chronic stress, PTSD, or another anxiety disorder, it is best for your health and well-being to abstain from alcohol and drug use.
  • Learn life skills. Stress may be inevitable, but you can learn healthy ways to cope with it without turning to drugs or alcohol. For instance, you may need training in problem-solving or decision-making skills. Learning new employment skills may give you the tools needed to get out of a stressful job situation and increase your quality of life.
  • Find help for your family. Relationships with partners, parents, or children can create significant stress for anyone. If a relationship is causing stress in your life, consider family therapy, which works on building family strength while reducing conflict.
  • Practice yoga. This ancient practice is an ideal way to lower the stress that contributes to substance abuse. Yoga provides a physical workout, so you’re able to feel better about how your body looks and feels. Additionally, it places a focus on mindfulness that allows you to be aware of your own thoughts and emotions. At least one study has linked regular yoga practice to lower levels of an inflammatory protein linked to stress. The practice has become an accepted part of many alcohol and drug addiction treatment centers. However, it can be practiced anywhere. Take a class at a local fitness center or use a yoga DVD to practice at home.
  • Meditation. Another accepted stress management practice is meditation, which involves emptying your mind of stressful thoughts and focusing only on what is going on at that exact moment. Meditation often involves a focus on your own breathing, but some practitioners prefer to focus on a chant, affirmation, or, in some cases, prayer.
  • Take care of your body. Caring for your body is an often overlooked way to manage stress. Regular exercise naturally makes you feel better by raising your body’s level of endorphins, which are linked to a positive mindset. Eating a proper diet will provide the nutrients your body needs to create a foundation for healthy physical and emotional well-being.

You can make lifestyle changes that reduce the anxiety and stress causing problems in your life. If you are struggling with stress and alcohol or drug addiction, it’s critical to find professional treatment that includes stress management components. These strategies will help you develop practical ways to lower stress so you have a better chance of staying sober.

There is still hope.

Our licensed addiction experts can help. Call us today for a confidential assessment.

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