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Stress, substance abuse, and addiction all are complexly intertwined. The Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences publishes information on the ways in which stress can be a predictor for, and increase a person’s vulnerability to, addiction. Stress is a physiological manifestation of brain chemistry and bodily functions that occurs in the presence of change.
Stress can be both good and bad, as well as range from mild to severe. Stress can come from external sources like relationships, jobs, and finances, and it can also be caused by internal pressures, including anxiety. Chronic stress can damage brain functions and structure, Psychology Today warns, and lead to the onset of mood or anxiety disorders as well as many other health concerns or illnesses.
Stress is also a predictor of relapse to addiction, which is a return to drug or alcohol abuse after being abstinent for any length of time. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that relapse rates for addiction are between 40 percent and 60 percent on average, which is similar to relapse rates for other chronic disease, like diabetes, hypertension, and asthma. NIDA warns that high levels of stress can contribute to relapse.Drugs and alcohol can act as a form of self-medication, as they can temporarily alleviate stress and dampen the brain’s response to it. Over time, using drugs and alcohol as a method for stress relief can create more issues, however, as brain chemistry is altered from chronic substance abuse. When someone uses drugs or alcohol, parts of the brain that manage impulse control, learning and memory, feelings of pleasure and mood regulation, and motivation are affected as the normal flow of the naturally occurring chemical messengers is disrupted. Drug dependence sets in and, with it, difficult withdrawal symptoms. Added stress in the form of insomnia, anxiety, and depression are common side effects of drug withdrawal. So in effect, stress contributes to addiction, and addiction compounds and exacerbates stress.
During addiction treatment, individuals acquire methods for coping with stress, learn how to spot potential triggers, and develop tools for preventing relapse. Behavioral therapies teach people how to regulate emotions and improve negative thought patterns that can contribute to self-destructive behaviors. Stress reduction is an important part of addiction treatment programs. Methods learned in life skills, therapy, and counseling sessions can provide healthy ways for reducing or minimizing relapse by addressing possible triggers and stressors. Lower levels of stress can improve healing, prevent relapse, and enhance a person’s overall emotional and physical well being.
There are many ways to reduce stress levels during recovery.
When someone feels stressed, heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and respiration rates increase, as do focus, attention, alertness, and energy. Adrenaline increases, and the body prepares to go into survival mode to protect itself from danger. This is an important feature in life-threatening situations. Healthy doses of stress can even increase work productivity and have positive effects.
When a person battles addiction, however, stress can often be a catalyst to return to drugs or alcohol as a method of soothing this “fight-or-flight” reaction. By recognizing the body’s response to stress and understanding triggers that can cause it, individuals can learn how to replace alcohol and drugs with healthy coping mechanisms for minimizing stress instead. By using the tools that are taught during an addiction treatment program, as well as holistic and complementary methods, individuals can help to keep stress levels down and promote long-lasting physical and emotional health during recovery.