How Does Stress Affect Substance Abuse?

According to the American Psychological Association, 44 percent of American adults reported an increase in stress levels between 2006 and 2011.

Stress is a normal and healthy response to triggers in the environment, body, and mind. It only becomes a problem when individuals don’t know how to correctly manage it or when stress levels become too high.

When stress occurs too frequently in someone’s life, it can have multiple side effects, such as:

  • Acne
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Gastrointestinal upse
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Weight gain
  • High blood pressure
  • Deterioration of interpersonal relationships

a young women is feeling overstressed and begins self-medicating with drugs and alcohol

Certain individuals are predisposed to having more stress in their lives. Interestingly, it is often those same groups of people who engage in substance abuse behaviors or end up addicted to drugs and alcohol. While the nature of their stress may not be the causative link between the two, there is enough evidence of a link to know stress is a related influence. In cases of mismanagement of stress, individuals may lash out when under the pressures of mounting stress that they don’t know how to dissipate.

Self-medicating with drugs and alcohol often plays a big role in the lives of the overstressed.

High-stress career fields are also major contributors. For example, a legal career is associated with high levels of stress. Likewise, substance abuse among attorneys is far from uncommon. Alcohol is the primary drug of choice among lawyers. This is likely because alcohol is legal and consumption of it, even on a regular basis, has come to be a socially acceptable behavior in America. A Journal of Addiction Medicine study reports 20.6 percent of attorneys analyzed fit the criteria for alcohol dependence or problematic drinking practices.

Stress is thought to be a contributing factor to the high rate of depression among attorneys. Lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression, according to CNN.

One of the biggest precipitating factors of stress is cortisol. The body produces this hormone in the adrenal glands. When there is an overproduction of cortisol, the body actually becomes more sensitive to pain. In turn, some people may reach for illicit substances or alcohol to numb their discomfort. Excess cortisol can also cause insomnia, weight gain, anxiety, and depression. All of these factors are common underlying issues in people who have substance abuse problems.

In many cases though, history of stress during childhood is not a prerequisite for an inability to handle it as an adult. Some individuals may suffer from mental health disorders that make them more susceptible to feeling distressed, even with low amounts of stress that most people would find tolerable. However, the inverse of this situation can also be true. Sometimes, substance abuse is what causes stress. Most of the time, a lifestyle that involves drug or alcohol abuse also brings with it financial woes, arguments with family, pressure to keep up at work, and additional issues. This can create a perpetual cycle of stress and substance abuse.

When it comes to people who can’t manage stress well, the risk of substance abuse is also high. Adults who were raised in homes where physical, verbal, emotional, or sexual abuse occurred are a prime example of this. The dysfunction present in these homes resulted in a lack of guidance that children need to understand what their feelings mean. To a child, stress feels like tension and anxiety, but they often don’t understand these words or know how to verbalize them. These children grow into adults that don’t understand how to diffuse those feelings either. Thus, the pattern of abuse often continues.

The Guardian reports 30-40 percent of children who are abused will grow up to engage in abuse themselves. The same cycle of abuse is prevalent among those who are dependent on drugs or alcohol.

A quarter of all children raised by parents struggling with alcohol dependence go on to develop alcoholism themselves, according to Psych Central.

How Stress Influences Substance Choice

Research has shown that substance choice is often impacted by what the individual is dealing with. For example, someone who is struggling with anxiety will opt for depressants that may calm their nerves, while those who suffer from depression prefer uppers like cocaine and methamphetamine. People who are under large amounts of stress on a regular basis often opt for substances that are easily obtainable. Alcohol and marijuana are likely the top two choices.

While substances like these may serve as a temporary fix to mitigate stress, they don’t solve problems. They don’t reduce the amount of stress in someone’s life; they just make it easier to ignore that stress. In the end, these individuals still don’t know how to manage stress without the substance.

How to Manage Stress in a Healthier Manner

doctor discussing how stress affects substance abuse disorders in individuals

Minimizing stress levels is life is crucial to addressing an addiction. Eliminating or minimizing triggers is a big part of this. When individuals leave treatment, they need to have a low-stress environment to return to. This presents a lot of difficulty for many clients whose family members, friends, and even spouses are also abusing drugs and alcohol. Sober living facilities may be a good place for these people to live in between treatment and returning home while they find a firmer footing in recovery. A study published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs supported this, with six-month abstinence rates jumping from an 11 percent baseline to 68 percent at six-month and 12-month follow-ups for one sober living facility, and from a 20 percent baseline to 40 percent at six months, and to 45 percent at 12 months, at another sober living house.

Support groups can be a saving grace for individuals who may not have any sober friends to speak of outside treatment. Here, they can meet likeminded people and form relationships with them that last beyond their stint in rehab.

Aside from group interaction, clients should take advantage of the therapy resources available to them. While engaging in such is a strong requirement for treatment, many people make the mistake of discontinuing their therapy once they are out of rehab. Continuing with therapy afterward builds on the work done in structured rehab and helps to prevent relapse.

Finding quality addiction treatment you can rely on is important. Laguna Treatment Hospital believes that your stay in rehab is just as important as your aftercare. We work with you to design a relapse prevention plan and connect you with a group of alumni to support you throughout your recovery. Discover our 90 day promise to keeping you clean and sober.

When stress is a contributing factor to substance abuse, the focus during treatment must not solely lie in reducing stress and environmental triggers. Of course, once the client leaves treatment, they’ll be advised to avoid their old haunts and distance themselves from others who use, but they need to be equipped to handle stress in healthy ways too. No one lives a stress-free life. A Gallup poll found that four in 10 Americans reported frequent stress in their lives.

Unforeseen circumstances do arise, and when they do, people in recovery need to be armed with a set of tools that gets them through the event without relapse. These tools may include:

  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Cardiovascular exercise
  • Weight training
  • Journaling
  • Talking to a friend
  • Affirmations

Meditation has proven itself as a strong precursor to a more peaceful lifestyle, and it works wonders for people recovering from addiction and issues of mental illness. Yoga is much the same. Harvard Health Publications noted a 65 percent improvement in overall wellbeing among women who practiced yoga in attempt to better their stress levels and decrease depression and anxiety.

Exercise of any kind naturally gets endorphins pumping and raises dopamine levels naturally. The Anxiety and Depression Association of Americareported only 14 percent of the population uses exercise to deal with stress.

Other methods for coping with stress can be developed by the individual in conjunction with their therapist. What works for one person may not work for someone else. The key is finding a customized approach to stress management that helps the person to cope with inevitable stress, and lower overall stress levels, without turning back to substance abuse.

About The Contributor
Editorial Staff
Editorial Staff, American Addiction Centers
The editorial staff of Laguna Treatment Hospital is comprised of addiction content experts from American Addiction Centers. Our editors and medical reviewers have over a decade of cumulative experience in medical content editing and have reviewed... Read More
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