How Does Stress Impact Addiction?

Stress can have an impact on addiction development and may exacerbate an existing addiction.

A study published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Science on Chronic Stress, Drug Use, and Vulnerability to Addiction found that people exposed to adverse or stressful events are more likely to engage in drug use.

Experiences of stress include the perception, evaluation, and response to any events or stimuli that appear harmful, threatening, or challenging to a person. They may do so in an emotional, physical, or mental capacity, but all tend to trigger responses in the same neural pathways.

Can Stress Cause Addiction?

Stress, on its own, does not cause addiction. Rather, a person may choose to cope with stress by self-medicating with alcohol or drugs. If the stress is chronic, and a person continues to cope in this way, they increase their likelihood of developing an addiction. However, not everyone who chronically engages in substance use will become addicted. Other factors that increase a person’s risk of addiction development include:

  • Childhood experiences, such as lack of parental supervision and drug experimentation
  • Biological factors, such as genes, gender, or ethnicity
  • Home and family life that supports or normalizes substance misuse
  • Early age of first drug use
  • How the drug is taken (smoking or injecting drugs increases their addictive potential because they enter the brain quickly and powerfully.)

How Does Substance Use Affect Stress?

Substance use may initially reduce the stress a person feels, but the relief only lasts as long as a person is intoxicated. After the effects of the substance have worn off, a person may feel increased levels of stress, leading to a dangerous cycle of substance use to relieve the increasing levels of stress.

With continued substance use or misuse, physical dependence or addiction may develop. Addiction is a brain disease that manifests in a cyclical expression of symptoms with three main phases.

  • The first stage is characterized by a preoccupation with consuming a substance, marked by mental obsession and cravings.
  • The second phase is filled with binging and states of intoxication.
  • Then, the third stage comes as a result of abstinence when the substance runs out, and a person cannot obtain any more.

During the more difficult stages of the addictive cycle, a person’s days become filled with negative emotional states and increased stress. So, a person’s life becomes a cycle built around consumption and is regularly punctuated with stressful states.

Does Chronic Stress Increase The Risk Of Relapse?

Chronic or prolonged stress increases the chances that a person might respond poorly or experience dysregulation. Both chronic and acute stress affect the brain’s reward system, the autonomic nervous system, and other systems that are also influenced by addiction. Certain brain changes are induced by chronic stress, which makes a person more vulnerable to both addiction and relapse.

Chronic stress may contribute to the development and maintenance of behaviors related to drug use in predisposed individuals. A study from the academic journal Neuron found that people who experience chronic stress are more likely to relapse.

What Are Some Coping Mechanisms For Stress?

It is important to evaluate the causes of stress and recognize how your body may be reacting to it to learn how to cope with it. People respond to stress differently, and it may manifest in:

  • Denial
  • Strong feelings of fear, anger, sadness, anxiety, frustration, or numbness
  • Changes in appetite, energy levels, desires, or interests
  • Difficulty with sleep, concentration, or decision-making
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches, digestive issues, or skin rashes
  • Worsening of chronic health or mental health problems
  • Increased substance use

Though everyone experiences stress at different points in life, not everyone has learned to cope with it in a healthy way. Some healthy ways to manage stress include:

  • Taking breaks from the stressful event or environment
  • Prioritizing self-care such as exercising, eating healthy, taking scheduled breaks, and getting enough rest
  • Making time for activities you enjoy
  • Talking to others about your concerns or stressors
  • Connecting with community or faith-based organizations
  • Avoiding alcohol and drugs
  • Seeing a therapist or professional counselor when necessary
  • Maintaining a routine

How Does Stress Impact Your Recovery?

Chronic stress can make it more challenging to recover from addiction. However, taking steps toward recovery may also reduce the stress in a person’s life by bringing healing. Ultimately, you are in charge of your pursuit of recovery, and evidence-based help is available.

With help, stress can become another aspect of your life that is healed during addiction recovery. Many programs and behavioral therapies focus on developing coping skills, relational skills, and even employment skills, which may improve commonly stressful areas of life.

Managing Stress And Addiction With Treatment

Addiction treatment teaches a variety of coping skills through the behavioral therapies utilized in rehab. Coping skills are also applicable to stress management, as they are intended to help an individual cope with any number of substance-use triggers. Therefore, though recovery may be more difficult for a person with a stress-induced addiction than for those without, addiction treatment has the tools to help a person manage both issues.

Evidence-based addiction treatment often includes the use of a variety of behavioral therapies to heal the mental effects of addiction on the brain.

For example, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a therapeutic approach based on the idea that a person’s thoughts determine their behaviors. Thus, if they are able to better control or manage their thoughts, replacing harmful thought patterns with helpful thought patterns, then behaviors can change. A person may learn a self-monitoring technique to recognize cravings or situations that might be difficult to resist and devise a plan to cope with or avoid those situations. Many times, situations of stress might trigger use, so a therapist might address how to cope with or manage that stress in order to avoid substance use.

Other aspects of healing can make it easier to manage stress and the usual difficulties of life by providing alternative solutions to substance use.

Break The Cycle Of Addiction

If you or a loved one is struggling with stress, addiction, or both, know that help is available.

Contact a treatment provider today to find out the answers to your rehab-related questions and explore your treatment options.