Raffa Bari - Author | Last Updated: 5th November 2021
The Relationship between Addiction and Stress
Everybody experiences stress to a certain degree.
It is a normal physiological response to challenges in everyday life and it can be a positive thing – helping us to overcome those challenges and fuelling the fight or flight response in more extreme situations.
Too much stress can be harmful, however, and there is evidence that there is a clear relationship between drug or alcohol addiction and stress. Stress can trigger or exacerbate substance misuse, which can sometimes lead to addiction.
This in turn can create more stress, helping to create a vicious cycle. It can be very difficult to break free from addiction without expert help such as a period of rehabilitation. If you are suffering from addiction and stress our therapies could help you to deal with these interlinking issues and make a full and long-lasting recovery.
How common is Stress?
As already noted, everyone experiences a certain level of stress at times so the real question is when this becomes harmful. In the biggest known study of stress levels in the UK, nearly three quarters (74%) of respondents said they had felt so stressed over the previous year that they had felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.
Participants in the survey reported many different causes of stress. More than a third (36%) cited a long-term health condition in themselves or somebody they know, while more than a fifth said debt was a factor.
Nearly half (49%) of young people aged 18-24 said comparing themselves to others was a source of stress while 36% of women and 23% were stressed over their appearance and body image. Housing issues and pressure to succeed were also listed as common stressors.
How does Stress affect the Mind and Body?
Stress can have a significant impact on your physical and mental health. The NHS says that stress can have a wide range of physical and mental symptoms, as well as affect your behaviour.
These symptoms could include (but are not limited to):
- Headache and dizziness
- Stomach issues
- Muscle pains or tension
- Raised heartbeat
- Chest pains
- Sexual dysfunction
- Difficulty concentrating
- Constant worrying
- Feeling overwhelmed
The NHS also notes that changes in behaviour could include irritability, sleeping and eating too much or too little, avoiding certain people and places and drinking or smoking more – which very much relates to the issue of potential alcohol and drug addiction.
In the YouGov survey cited above, more than half (51%) of adults who said they felt stressed also reported feeling depressed, with 61% reported feelings of anxiety. Loneliness, self-harm and suicidal thoughts and feelings were also cited by a significant proportion of respondents.
The Relationship between Addiction and Stress
Not everyone who turns to drugs of various kinds, including legal drugs like alcohol and nicotine, will end up in drug rehab but anyone who uses addictive substances runs a very real risk of addiction.
In the YouGov stress survey, nearly a third (29%) of people said they had started to drink or increased their drinking due to stress, with 16% saying they had started to smoke or increased their smoking levels. Statistics for the effect of stress on illegal drug use are not as easy to come by but it seems certain that chronic stress or acute stress levels can have a major impact on substance abuse of all kinds.
A number of studies bear this out. One, which was published in the scientific journal the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, says that while stress has long been known to increase vulnerability to addiction, it is only relatively recently that an understanding of the underlying mechanisms has started to develop. It adds that “some evidence of molecular and cellular changes associated with chronic stress and addiction has been identified”.
The study also identifies a number of stress-causing events, or stressors, that can raise the risk of addiction. These include:
- Loss of a parent or parental divorce and conflict
- Loss of a child
- A partner being unfaithful
- Loss of home
- Emotional abuse and neglect
- Physical and/or sexual abuse
- Poor behavioural and emotional control
It’s worth noting that while exposure to major stress events can increase the risk of developing an addiction, they only offer an indication of risk.
Not everyone who is exposed to chronic or acute stress or who suffers from a stress disorder will go on to misuse drugs or develop an addiction, but there is evidence of increased risk. If you have developed an addiction with stress playing an underlying part, a drug or alcohol rehab programme could help.
Stress, Mental Health and Addiction
According to the charity Mind, while stress is not a psychiatric diagnosis in itself, it is closely linked to mental health in a couple of important ways. Stress can cause or exacerbate certain mental health disorders such as anxiety or depression. Mental health conditions can also cause additional stress, creating a vicious cycle that can be difficult to break free from.
There is also a complex relationship between mental health and addiction. In some cases an existing mental health condition can trigger or exacerbate substance misuse or addiction and vice versa – addiction can lead to mental health issues or worsen an existing one.
When you add stress to the mix it can be very difficult to unpick. A co-existing mental health and addiction issue is often known as dual diagnosis and can frequently be treated at a rehab centre.
Ways to help reduce your stress levels
There are many healthy ways to reduce your stress levels. Exercise and healthy eating might not offer a ‘magic bullet’ but can reduce some of the symptoms of stress. Making time for yourself, learning to say ‘no’ and talking to friends, family and others in your support network can also be useful.
Many rehabs will also treat a range of mental health conditions as well as drug, alcohol and behavioural addictions. This may include dedicated stress treatment.
Stress management, relaxation techniques and alternative therapies such as art and music therapies may also be offered alongside detoxification and addiction treatment therapies. These can be important in relapse prevention as stress can be a trigger for substance misuse following a stay in rehab.