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Stress and addiction

Stress is a normal part of life, and some find they can manage it with practical, easy-to-implement methods, such as exercise, relaxation technics and meditation. Stress affects people differently, and some may turn to unhealthy habits to deal with stress. In fact, some people turn to substances, like alcohol and drugs, or behaviours such as gambling or sex, to escape from stress, and this abuse of substances and behaviours can lead to addiction.

From Stress to Addiction

Some people, when stressed, pick up certain behaviours, such as nervous habits. This might include such things as nail biting, pacing, and hair pulling. Other individuals, however, may turn to drugs or alcohol to help ease symptoms of stress. Although such outlets provide temporary relief, allowing the person to forget about the stressful situation for a short period of time, it ultimately becomes destructive. Any habit, which may begin casually, has the potential to lead to addiction. It’s common knowledge that chronic stress is a well-known risk factor for addiction and relapse vulnerability.


Certain drugs, as well as alcohol, or behaviours such as gambling excessive shopping or sex can provide a temporary calming effect, so individuals may feel like their problems are gone. This can lead to frequent consumption, and/or at higher quantities, to help decrease stress levels. In reality, the substances or the behaviour can cause effects that are more damaging than the stress that triggered the abuse.


Excess use or abusive behaviour can be a coping strategy to deal with stress or reduce tension, but it can also be due to changes in the brain caused by chronic stress. These changes can be similar to the changes that drug use can cause, and long-term drug use can even make users more sensitive to – and have a decrease in their ability to handle – stress.


Addiction can also cause individuals to perform ineffectively at work, which may lead to job loss, and this can cause more stress. Addiction can also cause people to lose their families, friends, and support systems, as relationships are damaged, as well as their health.

Addiction Affects the Body’s Stress Response

As stated above, substance abuse can affect a drug user’s ability to handle stress as well as increasing physiological stress (for example hormonal load).


When people first try drugs or alcohol in a stressful situation, they may experience a decrease in the extreme emotions that stress can initiate. They may find this effect to be rewarding, but when those wear off, the next stop is withdrawal. This can trigger what the user feels as unpleasant feelings, due to the fact that the brain has increased stress-related neurotransmitters and the blood has increased levels of stress hormones. This can frequently trigger the stress response in the body and increase the sensitivity of the response’s trigger. This is what makes drug users and other addicts more susceptible to stress; situations that would be minor to a healthy individual is likely to cause a hyper response in drug users.


When substance abuse or excess behaviours transitions to addiction, the reward of decreased emotions changes, and is likely to turn into unpleasant feelings and even adverse effects. The cause is involvement of the brain’s reward system as it floods the brain with dopamine. Drugs can change the reward system, which can lead to the compulsive addiction.


Dealing with Stress

If someone feel they have problems with both stress and addiction, they should seek the assistance of a professional. They can begin with their GP – if their GP does not feel comfortable with addiction, they may be referred to one who does – or locate an addiction specialist. A medical professional will be able to assess the person’s situation and determine the best plan of action for them. Most often, addiction treatment that deals with co-occurring disorders will be recommended, and this can come in many forms, from residential or inpatient treatment to outpatient treatment, including behavioural therapy, 12-Step support or alternative (non-12-step) support.


Often, treating an underlying emotional problem may cause a decrease in stress. Certain mental conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD), anxiety, or depression, can cause stressors that may seem minor to some, become unbearable. At this point, stress can impact that person’s quality of life.

Different Treatments

Treatment for stress and addiction varies greatly according to the individual. If the dependence is severe, and inpatient treatment is recommended, the treatment plan should focus on both the individual’s addiction as well as stress. Therapy can help focus on the disruptive thinking caused by addiction and modify negative thinking. Medications may be used if needed, to help through any unpleasant withdrawal symptoms – for example, if anxiety is an issue contributing to the addiction, a mental health professional may prescribe an anti-anxiety medication to help with the symptoms.


No matter which therapy option clients choose, treatment plans must be tailored to each one. No two clients are the same, and treatment plans should also be reviewed at different points during the client’s recovery and amended as required. Factors such as age, the addiction, and certain life situations must also be considered when developing a recovery plan.


Often, clients are recommended to undergo a detox. The detox process is essential, as clients cannot effectively learn new coping skills and stress management skills while under the influence of the certain substances (such as drugs or alcohol).  A detox also provides a new physiological baseline.


Behavioural therapy is a crucial part of treatment, as it helps clients recognize and change behaviours related to their addiction. Clients learn new coping skills to help manage stress, so they don’t turn to their bad habits when they encounter stress in the future. This type of therapy will also help clients to identify both acute and chronic stressors, and find ways to deal with these stressors. Therapy will also include building problem-solving and decision-making skills.


Clients may choose to participate in family or group therapy sessions if a relationship is causing excessive stress. This will provide family members with stress management techniques and help to build a stronger family unit, as the family works through stressful issues for both the client and the family as a whole.


If the client’s work environment or job is causing stress, and a career change is desired, these issues should be discussed.

If a client has attended a rehabilitation program previously, but later relapsed, this does not indicate that the person has failed in recovery. It simply means that the person may need to either learn new skills to promote recovery or that a change to their treatment plan is required.


The Importance of Effective Stress Management Techniques

Learning effective methods to manage stress is crucial to the recovery process. This ensures clients are equipped to deal with stress in healthy ways so they don’t turn back to substances when stress hits.


Heartmath, is a science-based and frequently used method of stress and anxiety relief, and it has been shown to be effective across various demographics. In addition, physical exercise can also be very helpful. Physical exercise also causes the brain to release endorphins, which are the body’s natural painkillers and related to positive thinking. The endorphins also encourage stress relief and overall happiness.


A proper diet provides nutrients that are essential for physical health, boosting energy, emotional stability, and concentration. Since stress weakens the immune system, a balanced diet can help individuals stay healthy when under stress.

Overall wellness, promoted through sufficient sleep, a healthy diet, and regular exercise, helps reduce stress levels.


Bottom Line

Since stress and addiction have such a strong link, it is essential that clients seeking addiction treatment are assessed for stress-related issues as well as other emotional issues. If stress in a client’s life is properly addressed, he or she faces a lesser risk of relapse. Stress may also play a role in whether or not a person stays in treatment, so it should be addressed promptly in treatment.


Managing stress is critical to the treatment of addiction and prevention of relapse.

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