Stress and Addiction: Understanding the Relationship Between the Two

Last Updated: Aug 18th 2021

Reviewed by Laura Riley

The connection between stress and addiction is a dangerous and harmful one. Research shows that people who experience chronic stress are at an increased risk for problematic substance use, addiction, and eventual relapse. Stress is the way the body responds to external events such as moving to a new home, starting a new job, or getting a divorce. 

Stressful life events combined with unhealthy coping skills can lead to self-medication. Self-medication is the use of substances to help cope with stressors, mental illnesses, or physical pain without the supervision of a doctor. 

Learning more about how stress and substance abuse relate to one another can help individuals properly deal with both issues in their lives. If stress exacerbates substance use, individuals must learn how to address stressful situations in a healthier way. The opposite is also true: individuals who suffer from stress caused by addiction will need help in ending substance abuse.

What is Stress?

Stress is the way our body responds to external pressure. Deadlines, changes, and threats to our physical, financial, or emotional safety can all be sources of stress. When we experience stressful situations, our bodies release stress hormones called adrenaline, epinephrine, and cortisol. 

These hormones create something called a “fight or flight” response. This response is something ancient humans had to develop to fight off immediate danger such as predatory animals or flee the situation to escape safely. 

The release of adrenaline causes pulse rate and blood pressure to surge, leading to rapid breathing. This rapid breathing sends extra oxygen to the brain and increases alertness. Alongside the release of adrenaline, epinephrine causes blood sugar and fats stored in the body to be released to increase energy. Cortisol levels increase in moments of stress to help the body recover from the release of blood sugar and fat by increasing appetite and storing the extra nutrients in the body as fat. 

The way people deal with stress depends on their genetic makeup, upbringing, personality type, and resources.

Types of Stress 

The American Psychological Association has identified three different kinds of stress: acute stress, episodic acute stress, and chronic stress. Each varies in the amount of time it is experienced, treatment options, and symptoms. 

  • Acute stress: Acute stress lasts the least amount of time out of the three types; it is also the most common type. This type of stress usually entails having negative thoughts about a stressful situation. Persistent worry about an upcoming deadline or the future in general. 
  • Episodic acute stress: When you experience acute stress frequently, you are considered to be struggling with episodic acute stress—people who take on too much responsibility and feel overwhelmed experience this kind of stress. There is a constant feeling of tension and anxiety that puts people at a higher risk of overeating, binge drinking, and frequent drug use. 
  • Chronic stress: This kind of stress is caused by things such as living in poverty, war, and trauma. There is no clear end to when you will feel relief with this kind of stress, and it is the most damaging type. Experiencing chronic stress changes the neurobiology of the brain and wears people down with each day that passes. 

Experiencing episodic acute stress can lead to symptoms like irritability, gut issues, and issues in close relationships. Chronic stress can cause suicidal ideation, strokes, cancer, and depression. These kinds of stress also increase the risk and problematic drug consumption leading to substance use disorder or relapse for those in recovery. 

Signs That You Are Experiencing Stress 

The first step you need to take to get your stress under control is to know how to identify the symptoms of stress.The first step you need to take to get your stress under control is to know how to identify the symptoms of stress. Often, we adjust to being chronically stressed and do not even notice we are living with these symptoms. Stress affects cognitive functioning, the physical body, and mood. Here are a few symptoms to look out for: 

  • Emotional symptoms of stress: Stress can manifest in irritability, frustration, and feelings of being overwhelmed. Often, if you are stressed, you can feel out of control and find it challenging to control racing and negative thoughts. People who feel chronically stressed may isolate themselves by avoiding socializing with friends and family. 
  • Physical symptoms of stress: You can notice stress in the physical body by seeing signs such as headaches, grinding of the teeth, and chest pain are common. Chronic pain is a good indicator of stress because high levels of cortisol are correlated to chronic pain. Other common physical symptoms include fatigue, insomnia, digestive issues, frequent infections, cold hands and feet, and lack of libido. 
  • Cognitive symptoms: If you experience an inability to focus, pessimism, procrastination, fidgeting, nail-biting, and changes in appetite, it is a good indicator that stress is affecting your cognitive functioning. Increased use of drugs such as nicotine, alcohol, marijuana, and illicit substances is also a clear indicator that you may be trying to ease your symptoms of stress by self-medicating. 

How Is Addiction Related to Stress? 

Now that you know what stress is, the different kinds of stress, and how to identify stress, it is time to start exploring the connection between stress and substance abuse. The research shows that the chronic stress tied to domestic violence, family conflict, sexual/physical abuse, and neglect correlates with a higher risk of developing an addiction. Things such as divorce, dysfunctional marriages, unhappy work environments, and discrimination also tie into a higher risk for addiction. 

The more stressors you are exposed to, the more likely you are to develop an addiction because of the likelihood to self-medicate to ease symptoms related to stress. When experiencing chronic stress, it is common to become more impulsive due to the gray matter in the brain decreasing over time. The gray matter in the brain connects to regulating stress and having more control over thoughts and behaviors. 

Due to the dwindling of the grey matter in the brain that is associated with a lack of reflection and less cognitive functioning, people who are stressed are more likely to engage with impulses such as smoking, eating, and drinking to relieve stress. 

Healthy Ways to Deal With Stress in Recovery

While you are working to overcome alcohol and drug abuse, you may encounter situations that cause stress in your life. It is important, even vital, to develop safe and healthy ways to deal with stress in recovery from addiction. Here are some ways to address and manage stress:

  • Practice breathing exercises
  • Ask for support from friends and family
  • Keep a journal and write about what you’re dealing with
  • Exercise and remain physically active
  • Improve sleeping habits
  • Spend time in nature
  • Talk to a therapist

Dealing with the combination of stress and substance abuse is far from easy. But, you can overcome these challenges by reaching out for help from professionals who truly understand your struggle. Learn how we can help you here at North Jersey Recovery Center today!

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Laura Riley

Medical Reviewer

Laura comes to NJRC with 23 years of vast clinical experience in hospital, residential, outpatient, and community outreach settings where she has worked, supervised clinical teams, and volunteered. She has provided substance abuse and mental health counseling, clinical coordination, and advocacy to individuals, families and groups, and specializes in co-occurring disorders for both adults and adolescents.

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