Stress and Addiction: What You Should Know

By May 16, 2019Dual Diagnosis
stress and addiction

What is Stress

People become stressed when under pressure, or are faced with a threat on their selves, which lead them to think they cannot cope adequately. Usually, stress is a normal body reaction to changes that threaten one’s comfort zone. The body’s response to stress can be mental, physical, or emotional. However, stress and addiction can be a frightening combination.

While stress is prone to cause distress and generally has strong negative connotations, it is not necessarily a harmful thing to experience. Stress can motivate productivity, for instance, when a person is under pressure to complete a project with little time, stress can motivate them to put in more effort. Also, stress as a natural response can be a warning system to keep you alert and avoid danger.

How Many People Deal With Stress?

Everyone has experienced stress at some point in their lives. According to a 2017 survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA), 62% of Americans suffered stress related to money, 61% from work, and 63% about the future of the nation. These are only a small portion of the source of stress. Common life stressors include:

  • Divorce

  • Bereavement

  • Interpersonal conflict

  • Loss of a job

  • Chronic illness or injury

  • Political climate

  • Getting married

  • Crime (incl. hate crimes)

  • Government controversies

  • Childbirth

This list is by no means complete – meaning stress affects everyone in different ways. Moreover, social constructs such as gender, race, and ethnicity also contribute to stress across demographics.

How can Stress Lead to Substance Abuse?

Being stressed places you at an increased risk of developing an addiction to substances. Stress also increases your vulnerability to relapse during addiction recovery.

A substantial amount of research studies report that stress and addiction have a significant causal relationship. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) affirms that stress is the leading cause of relapse to drug abuse. In humans and animals, stress causes an increase in secretion of corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF), a peptide hormone in the brain. When above normal, this secretion leads to a corresponding increase in levels of cortisol (the stress hormone). In turn, cortisol triggers mobilization of energy resources and a cascade of other biological reactions manifesting as symptoms of stress.

Substance addiction often occurs as a behavioral response to stress. When dealing with stress, its negative consequences on one’s health and well-being can decrease overall behavioral control and increase impulsivity. With poor coping skills, some people will opt to self-medicate to reduce tension and distress. Such maladaptive behaviors play a crucial role in influencing vulnerability to substance abuse and addiction in the face of stress.

Using Drugs or Alcohol to Cure Stress

Unfortunately, poor coping strategies when dealing with stress can quickly transition substance abuse from causal to chronic.

The behaviorist theory to explain the connection between stress and addiction associates the development of addictive behaviors to maladaptive behavioral responses. By contrast, the neurobiological model explains that stress and addiction are linked by way of neuroadaptations. Neuroadaptation means changes in the brain that triggers learning, rewarding, and adapting to substance-induced stress pathways. It is such adaptations that enhance craving for more drugs, compulsiveness, and loss of control, which are crucial elements in the transition from casual to chronic substance abuse.

People who use substances to cure their stress not only expose themselves to addiction but also co morbidity. In such a case, co morbidity presents as a substance use disorder alongside a stress disorder. While co-occurring addiction and mental illness are even more burdensome on one’s health than when each of those conditions appears individually, such a dual diagnosis is still treatable. Dual diagnosis treatment centers offer holistic treatment options that can help with both stress and addiction recovery.

How is Stress Treated in Rehab?

Normally, stress treatment aims at providing patients with the necessary tools and resources to help them cope with triggers and stressors. Such treatment can easily extend to co-occurring stress and addiction. Here, treatment focuses on healing the body, mind, and soul through holistic therapies.

Holistic therapies help with stress by way of teaching the mind to deal with discomfort and distress more effectively instead of using pharmaceuticals. The mechanism of treatment for this option is the promotion of mental stability and healthy habits to cleanse the body of toxins from addiction. Seemingly, this approach targets the mind and spirit to heal the body. Some treatment strategies in holistic therapy are yoga, meditation, acupuncture, and art therapy among others.

Other than holistic treatment approaches, co morbid stress and addiction can also be treated through a wide range of integrated treatment programs that include:

  • Detoxification. There is always the risk of substance abuse leading to stress and vice versa. To treat co-occurring stress and addiction, medical staff at a rehab center can elect to wean the person off a substance until the withdrawal symptoms (including stress) tapers off.

  • Psychotherapy. This is one of the most effective treatment plans for dual diagnosis. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one approach under psychotherapy, which assists people to cope with stress and addiction and encourages them to adjust their pattern of thinking that makes them vulnerable to a relapse.

  • In-patient Addiction Treatment. Rehabilitation centers offer points of care where people experiencing stress or addiction can receive medical and mental care for their conditions 24/7. In-patient treatment can involve psychotherapy and detoxification for patients dealing with co morbid stress and substance use disorder.

  • Aftercare. There is always the risk of a relapse among patients in stress and addiction recovery programs. Following mental health therapy and detoxification, dual diagnosis patients may require further support away from rehab centers. Continuing support even after initial recovery is critical to achieving long-lasting recovery from dual diagnosis.

Why Addiction Recovery can be Stressful

The foreseeable problem with stress is that dealing with it does not necessarily change its trigger. You may suffer distress from losing a parent, a spouse, or a job. But dealing with such stress does not automatically mean doing away with the stressors.

Any therapy to treat stress acknowledges that treatment is about changing the person’s reaction to a stressful situation rather than fixing the problem causing stress itself. But how well can people cope with stressful events when the stressor or tension appears to be a long-term problem?

In the case of long-term stressors such as bereavement, chronic illness, or prolonged stressful political climate, recovery can take more time and require more effort to sustain. It is not surprising that some people struggle a lot to deal with stress and addiction where others cope well. Coping skills are highly subjective. They vary in degree from one person to another.

Apart from mere individual differences, recovery from stress can be more burdensome for people not enjoying the support of others to see them through. Self-help and support groups have been found effective in forming healthy relationships and environments that promote and encourage mental wellness. A person lacking people with whom they can share their struggles and frustrations is often likely to develop poor coping skills, which increase their chances of self-medicating and becoming addicted to substances.

Developing Strong Coping Skills for Addiction

So how do you develop strong coping skills to see you through stress and addiction? You just have to change how you react to situations that make you stressed out. Stress is a normal emotional response, and because of that, we can always find a way to control it.

Amid feelings of terror or anxiety, there is always the chance to put your problems into perspective and rationalize the stressor. This is one way to cope with stress more effectively. Other than this, you can improve your coping skills by:

  • Taking care of yourself. Seemingly simple practices such as eating healthy, getting enough sleep, regularly exercising, and resting when stressed out can improve the way your body and mind respond to stressful events.

  • Avoiding drugs and alcohol. At first, antidepressant drugs and alcohol may seem to offer the readiest remedy for stress. Eventually, however, they will worsen your stress and lead to further mental health problems. You should always avoid the easiest way out of your stress and addiction.

  • Talking to others. One of the most effective coping mechanisms against stress and addiction is sharing your problems and frustrations with others. Opening up to a friend, partner, parent, or doctor will often make your problems seem lighter and more bearable.

  • Holistic Therapies – Holistic therapies like deep breathing techniques, practicing mindfulness and even exercise or yoga are all great ways to deal with stress. These are often taught to clients who attend holistic drug rehab.

Healthy Ways to Cope with Stress

Learning the skills to cope better with stress cannot be achieved overnight, neither does it come from a half-hearted effort at it. Strong coping skills will require perseverance, determination, and time. While working your way there, there are some healthy ways to change how you react to stressful events. Stress and addiction is never the way to go. Here are a few ways to help you cope:

  • Be rational. Feeling overwhelmed by emotion is the primary indication of stress. Without proper coping skills, feeling drowned may cause you to lose sight of what you can do about the stressor. A proper coping strategy is to put your problems into perspective and take responsibility for only what you can handle – nothing more. This allows you to make appropriate adjustments to how you need to react to the problem.

  • Quit trying to be perfect. One common cause of stress is trying to be or handle more than you can. This way, stress can be manifest because of having unrealistic expectations or wanting to become perfect. Rather than piling such pressure on yourself, always be contented with the much you can achieve and do not hesitate to ask others for help.

  • Share your feelings. Having people to talk to about your problems not only allows you to enjoy their support and encouragement, but also guidance based on their own experiences with stress. Being secretive about your stress and addiction only places you at greater risk of relapse.

  • Be flexible. You are bound to face moments of opposition at some point in your personal or professional life. Such moments of conflict will likely cause feelings of stress. To cope better with such stressors, consider compromising and making allowances for the opinion of others to triumph over yours. Accommodating opposing views rather than arguing will help you avoid unnecessary stressful situations.

  • Meditate. Spending time in reflection may relieve stress and help you grow more tolerant of it. Doing this also helps you develop a more positive outlook on stress and why it is necessary for one’s life. Luxury settings and amenities reduce stress and are particularly big on meditation as therapy treatment for stress.

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