How Stress Affects Addiction

Stress is a complex state triggered by our body’s perception of a challenge or threat. This fight-or-flight response, while helpful in short bursts, can become disruptive when persistent. Chronic stress can manifest through physical symptoms like headaches and fatigue, alongside emotional strains like anxiety and irritability. Fortunately, stress management techniques like exercise, relaxation practices, and social support can equip us to navigate stressful situations and protect our overall well-being. It is a major factor in everyone’s life, and practically no one is immune to it. The responses developed over millions of years in both humans and animals, and are there as a protection mechanism from environmental threats. 

However, today it seems to have a direct link to addiction. A variety of components contribute to addiction, including genetics, biological factors and environmental factors. Nonetheless, it is a well-known risk factor for those in recovery, and we know that it can be a trigger that leads to relapse. But how does it affect active addiction, and how does it relate to drug and alcohol abuse?

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Stress and self-medication :

Since alcohol and drugs release feel-good neurotransmitters in the brain, the short term effects will mask unpleasant emotions and release feelings of euphoria. This is often the reason for the use of drugs and alcohol as a way to relieve stress. Although these feelings of relief are temporary, and self-medication often leads to more stress, this is a common practice. 

However, more and more evidence is being discovered around how it alters the brain, and how, essentially, it can actually lead to substance abuse disorders. 

Stress and the brain :

According to an article by Harvard Health Publishing, stress hormones trigger alterations throughout the body and brain. “One such system that is affected by these hormones is the brain’s reward circuitry. The interaction between these hormones and the reward system can trigger the development of addiction, as well as a stress-induced relapse in drug or alcohol recovery.” The article goes on to state: “Stress reduction can help reduce the risk of developing an addiction and prevent relapse.”

Stress, trauma and addiction :

There seems to be considerable evidence from clinical studies that supports a connection between chronic distress and addiction vulnerability. This makes sense when considering that early negative life events such as the death of a parent, divorce, low parental support, physical violence and abuse, emotional abuse and the breakdown of family structure have all been associated with increased risk of substance misuse.

Additionally, trauma events also seem to have predictive outcomes for substance abuse. Examples of this can be seen in the correlation between conditions such as PTSD and substance use disorders.

Although more research is needed on the subject of whether stress leads to addiction or vice versa, we are becoming more aware of the overwhelming evidence that it can biologically affect the brain in a way that can lead to addiction.

Recovery852 assists individuals and families struggling with addiction and other mental health issues like anxiety and depression. We offer Motivational Interviewing (MI), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), 12-step Facilitation Therapy, Person-Centered Therapy and Wellness Coaching. If you or someone you know is suffering from anxiety or depression, contact us today.