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How Stress Can Create Addiction

People suffering from a substance use disorder (and those who have witnessed loved ones struggle with addiction) often wonder about the origins of the addiction itself. They may begin tracing back through their life’s events, trying to pinpoint stressful situations that could have triggered their substance abuse. Whether it is an alcohol use disorder, an opioid use disorder, or another type of substance abuse condition, it is easy to fall into the trap of blaming oneself.

Often, people are a product of their stressful environment. A person with an average capacity to manage stress may fall into the clutches of addiction when presented with a situation that severely strains their reserve. However, although stress can play a role in addiction, it is not everything concerning addiction and substance use disorders. Many people can endure a great number of stresses without ever developing a substance use disorder.

Read on to learn more about the role of stress in addiction, the risk factors for addiction, recognizing addiction, addiction treatment, and how to help prevent addiction in the face of a stressful environment.

stressed woman

Defining Stress and Differentiating Between Types of Stress

Stress can mean different things to different people. Some situations that certain people may find highly stressful (such as public speaking) are energizing and enjoyable for others. When discussing stress and its role in addiction, it helps to work off of a common definition of stress. For these purposes, the term “stress” means a person’s response to an uncomfortable or threatening environmental, physical, or internal stimulus. The key is that the stressor itself generates a cascade of chemicals within a person’s body, such as a release of neurotransmitters and stress hormones that drive up the “fight or flight” sympathetic response. Among many systemic effects, these chemicals can induce a racing heartbeat, high blood pressure, sweating, fast breathing, and emotions of fear, anxiety, or anger.

Types of stress can include:

  • Financial stress
  • Mental illness
  • Relationship stress
  • Stress from experiencing a traumatic event
  • Stress from illness or Injury
  • Work-related stress

Sometimes, stress can be a good thing. For example, if a person sees a wild animal running toward them, the increase in their heart rate and blood pressure can help keep them safe by propelling them away from imminent danger.

However, acute stress that lingers and causes a person to re experience a traumatic event or have nightmares can have damaging effects. The same is true of stress—such as working in a toxic environment—that persists and causes daily physical.

The Role of Stress in Addiction

Unfortunately, stress and addiction are highly related. Experts believe that experiencing stress can make a person more vulnerable to addiction or substance use disorders. That may be because stress can cause changes in the brain similar to the brain changes that occur with drug addiction. People struggling with a substance use disorder may also be more sensitive to stress than those not dealing with addiction because of these same brain changes. Stress can also make a person who has an addiction more vulnerable to relapse.

It’s important to note that not everyone who experiences a stressful event will respond to it in the same way, and stress will not invariably trigger a substance abuse disorder.

Identifying Stress-Related Risks Factors for Addiction

When developing an addiction, one single factor doesn’t generally tip a person into substance abuse. Instead, a multitude of stress-related factors can increase a person’s likelihood of developing a drug addiction.

When developing an addiction, one single factor doesn’t generally tip a person into substance abuse. Instead, a multitude of stress-related factors can increase a person’s likelihood of developing a drug addiction.

Types of stressful events or conditions that can more accurately predict an individual’s developing an addiction include the following.

  • Death of a significant other or close family member
  • Domestic violence
  • Emotional abuse or neglect
  • Employment dissatisfaction
  • Experiencing or witnessing a shocking or disturbing event (post-traumatic stress disorder)
  • Family dysfunction and single-parent family structure
  • Harassment
  • Loss of a child
  • Loss of home to physical disaster
  • Parental conflict and divorce
  • Physical abuse
  • Poverty
  • Sexual abuse
  • Unhappy relationships

Experts believe that the role of stress in early childhood is particularly impactful when it comes to developing an addiction. People exposed to stress in childhood may be more vulnerable to developing substance use disorders later in life because the stress can cause changes in the way that their genes are accessed and utilized, known as epigenetic changes. So, even if a person does not have a family history of addiction and possesses no known genes highly related to the mental illness of addiction, experts believe stress itself in early childhood can alter their genetics, according to Psychology Today.

overwhelmed man

What Does the Research Say About the Role of Stress in Addiction?

If stress gets correlated with addiction, does the number of stressors that a person experiences influence their likelihood of developing an addiction? Researchers believe the answer may be yes. Stress and its role in creating addiction may be cumulative, which means that a person who has dealt with a greater number of stressors in their lifetime may be even more primed to develop an addiction.

Recognizing Addiction

When a person is in a stressful situation, they may turn to a substance to help them cope, such as a bottle of wine or a cigarette. However, the relationship between experiencing stress and using substances to manage does not necessarily lead automatically to a substance use disorder. Instead, the National Institute on Drug Abuse notes that a person should consider whether a substance use disorder may be at play when they meet some or all of the following circumstances:

  • Routinely using a substance in larger amounts (or for longer periods) than they originally planned
  • Feeling the need to cut down or reduce their substance use but unable to independently
  • Being preoccupied with their substance use—spending an excessive amount of time thinking about the substance, obtaining it, using it, or recovering from it
  • Having cravings to use a substance
  • Beginning to have difficulties managing other aspects of their life, such as home life, academic life, or professional life, because of their substance use
  • Starting to forego activities that they once found enjoyable because of their substance use
  • Recognizing the negative impact the substance use is having on their life, mental health, and relationships, but continuing to use
  • Continuing to use the substance even if they have had a dangerously close call or know the substance is making them feel worse
  • Having to take more and more of the substance to get the same effect
  • Having had withdrawal symptoms that they relieved by using more of the substance

Recognizing addiction can be intimidating and frightening, particularly if a person has had stressful experiences in their life related to a caretaker’s or other loved one’s addiction. However, getting help through a structured rehab facility can get a person on the road to recovery and address their current underlying stressors (and those in their past) that may be factoring into their substance use disorder.

Within a rehab environment, a person can safely remove a substance from their lives while also engaging with behavioral therapists who can guide them through some of the more common pathways used in addiction management, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy. Often, a combination of medication-assisted treatment, therapy, and community support groups can go a long way in successfully treating addiction.

How to Prevent Addiction in the Face of a Stressful Environment

People who have experienced chronic stress may wonder what protective behaviors they can adapt to become more resilient and less vulnerable to developing a drug addiction in the face of their stress. Often, many of the protective factors, such as parental monitoring during childhood and anti-drug use policies, are out of a person’s control. However, research has shown that after-school activities and exercise programs reduce vulnerability to substance use disorders for parents affected by stress. Adults may be able to recreate this type of environment by staying engaged in their communities with structured activities and by engaging in routine physical exercise.

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How to Learn More About Stress and Its Role in Addiction

At The Haven New England, we understand the myriad factors and stressors that can contribute to addiction. For this reason, we also realize that no one’s pathway to addiction —or recovery—is identical. Our experienced clinicians help our clients address every aspect of their substance use disorder using a personalized and adaptable treatment plan.

We use evidence-based therapies at our state-of-the-art treatment facility to help our clients realize futures—free from substance abuse. We also teach stress management methods to help our clients maintain their sobriety and avoid relapse, even when they may get presented with a stressor in the future.

For more information about our addiction treatment and mental health programs, contact us today.

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