What is the connection between anxiety and substance addiction?

Mental Health

What is the connection between anxiety and substance addiction?

The Link Between Substance Addiction and Anxiety

The relationship between substance addiction and anxiety is concerning. Both substance addiction, including alcohol and drugs, and anxiety disorders are disease processes that affect human behavior. Alcohol and drug addiction force a chemical change within the human body that rewards the abusive behavior. Therefore, abuse of alcohol and drugs is viewed as a chronic disease of the brain, since it changes the structure of the brain. However, anxiety is viewed as a mental illness, since it affects the person’s moods, feelings, emotions, and behavior. Anxiety is the leading mental illness in the United States, with 18% of adults in the United States experiencing from some level of anxiety.

Which Came First – The Chicken (Anxiety) or The Egg (Addiction)?

Substance addiction and anxiety commonly feed off each other with substance addiction leading to anxiety, and vice versa. Neurological changes from substance addiction can create anxiety within a person, while an anxious person will often self-medicate to calm himself or herself down in a pattern that leads to substance abuse. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, people with anxiety are twice as likely to abuse substances than the general population. Additionally, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “About 20 percent of Americans with an anxiety or mood disorder such as depression have an alcohol or other substance use disorder, and about 20 percent of those with an alcohol or substance use disorder also have an anxiety or mood disorder.”

Forming Habits that Last a Lifetime

While different drugs work in distinct ways, all drugs commonly activate the brain’s reward system via the dopamine system. This allows behaviors such as drinking, smoking, and abusing substances to be rewarded every time they take place, slowly changing the behavior into a habit. According to the University of Utah, “As the brain continues to adapt to the presence of the drug, regions outside of the reward pathway are also affected. Over time, brain regions responsible for judgment, decision-making, learning, and memory begin to physically change, making certain behaviors “hard-wired.”

Signs and Symptoms

To overcome any disease process the signs and symptoms must be recognized. Signs and symptoms of substance addiction varies greatly depending on the substance in question, but can commonly lead to:

  • Decreased interest in friends, family, and extracurricular activities
  • Depression
  • Erratic behavior
  • Restlessness
  • Inability to control drinking or substance use
  • Unwillingness to discuss choices
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Slurred speech
  • Mental fogginess
  • Impaired judgment
  • Violent behavior
  • Blackouts

There are seven common forms of anxiety: Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Phobia, Panic Disorder, Agoraphobia, Phobias, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Each disorder has its own triggers, but overall symptoms of anxiety may include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating or clamminess
  • Rapid pulse
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Chest pain
  • Choking sensations
  • Trembling
  • Nausea
  • Muscle tension (locked-jaw or neck)
  • Stomach pain
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Dizziness

Treatment Options for those Facing Addiction and Anxiety

Treating only one of the two disorders will not eliminate the other. Therefore, treatments for people with both anxiety and substance addiction must be well rounded and focus on the person as a whole to be successful. Depending on the person’s comfort, recovery options include talk therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) focused on changing the person’s thinking and habits, motivational enhancement therapy, family therapy (especially for youth), group meetings (such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous), prescription medication, and alternative medicine, such as acupuncture. Commonly, more than one type of remedy will be necessary, especially at first, to help change the user’s daily habits. Support has also been shown as a major factor in the abuser’s ability to rehabilitate effectively.

Understanding the triggers that can commonly cause relapse help raise awareness towards possibilities and can sometimes lesson relapse if responded to earl enough. A common trigger is stress, which can be addressed via cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). By realizing that there are multiple treatments options for stress, such as mindfulness meditation, exercise, yoga, acupuncture, medication, and massage therapy, a person can find the tools that work for them. Since anxiety and substance addiction feed off of each other, it is even more important to understand that a situation that puts a strain on one disorder will ultimately mean straining the other.  

The most important factor in recovery is getting the help you need and surrounding yourself with resources to overcome your disorders. Even if you relapse, you must understand that that is not a failure, but a step within your recovery. When ready to face your recovery, reach out a therapist, recovery center, or group in your area.

By |2017-03-23T17:01:35+00:00December 21st, 2016|

About the Author:

Northpoint Recovery
Northpoint Recovery is the premier drug and alcohol rehab, detox, and treatment facility in the Northwestern United States.

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