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 and Addiction
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.
Helpful Tips for Stress Management
There are many ways to reduce stress levels during recovery.
- Attend support group meetings. Peer support and 12-Step meetings provide a healthy outlet and safe place to vent to sympathetic ears. These groups are made up of individuals with similar goals and expectations of sobriety who can relate. They are able to then offer hope, support, and encouragement. The Journal of Addictive Disorders reports on studies that find abstinence rates to be twice as high among individuals who regularly attend Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings than among those who don’t attend such meetings. More frequent meeting attendance also improved these rates.
- Get enough sleep. When a person is rested, they are healthier both emotionally and physically. Insomnia and sleep difficulties are common side effects of alcohol and drug withdrawal that can contribute to relapse. By ensuring that a person gets enough healthy sleep, abstinence can be better supported, the Journal of Addictive Disorders A person is more emotionally capable of handling stress when they get sufficient sleep.
- Exercise regularly. Physical fitness can improve health, decrease stress, and enhance a person’s self-esteem. Exercise naturally interacts with some of the brain’s neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, which are involved in feelings of pleasure – some of the same chemicals impacted by drug and alcohol abuse. This means that physical activity can often provide a healthy substitute for drugs and alcohol. The Chicago Tribune reports on studies that show it may also help mitigate and improve some of the damage done to the brain by drugs over time. A healthy level of exercise can reduce cravings and help to manage stress during recovery.
- Eat healthy and balanced meals. Avoiding processed foods and refined sugars, and adhering to a low-calorie diet with foods rich in proteins, omega-3 fatty acids, complex carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals, can improve brain function and overall health. It is also important to stay hydrated and drink enough water. Malnutrition is often a side effect of addiction. By regulating diet, emotions, physical health, and stress levels can be better controlled, the journal Today’s Dietician
- Avoid tobacco and caffeine products. Both nicotine and caffeine can interfere with healthy sleep by impacting levels of melatonin in the brain and disrupting a person’s circadian rhythms, both of which are important for healthy sleep. This in turn contributes to emotional and physical health, Psychology Today
- Consider creative outlets. Art therapy, painting, writing, sculpting, dancing, playing a musical instrument, and many more creative activities can help to provide a healthy outlet for stress and excess energy. They can also provide a form of introspection and a way for individuals to express their thoughts and feelings in a positive manner. This keeps these feelings from bottling up and leading to more stress.
- Keep busy and occupy the mind. The less time a person has to worry about things during recovery, the better. Staying busy can help to minimize cravings by keeping the mind occupied.
- Talk to friends, family members, religious personnel, community advocates, and mental health professionals when needed. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Stress is a normal part of life, but it is important for a person to recognize when these levels are unhealthy and when their coping mechanisms may not be working.
- Engage in mindfulness meditation and yoga. Mindfulness mediation is the concept of being aware of one’s body and how the mind, body, and soul are all connected. By being aware of how the body responds to stress, individuals are better equipped to then manage this stress. Studies published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that mindfulness meditation programs did work to reduce anxiety, depression, and physical pain. Mindfulness meditation and yoga are techniques that do not require a lot of space or equipment; they can be performed on the spot as needed to quell stress.
- Consider trying acupuncture, chiropractic care, massage therapy, and other complementary medicine techniques. These are often referred to as “adjunct therapies” and can be helpful when used alongside traditional addiction treatment methods. Acupuncture is a traditional form of Chinese medicine that uses needles to pinpoint specific pressure points to promote the flow of energy, which is showing promise in helping to alleviate stress, TIME Other adjunct therapies like massage therapy and chiropractic care use touch and physical manipulation to relieve physical ailments and potentially stress as well.
- Keep a structured schedule for sleep, eating, exercise, etc. Regular schedules help the body to reset itself and can be important for keeping stress levels to a minimum during recovery. It is often easier for a person to cope with things when they know exactly what to expect.
- Attend to any and all medical and mental health concerns. Co-occurring disorders are optimally managed through integrated treatment methods during recovery. The aim is to manage symptoms of both disorders simultaneously. Physical and psychological ailments can contribute to high levels of stress; by managing them, overall health can be improved.
- Take prescribed medications as directed. During recovery, medical and/or mental health providers may prescribe necessary medications to help keep brain chemistry balanced and the body healthy. It is important to keep taking all medications during this time.
- Use aftercare services that are offered. Relapse prevention programs, therapy, counseling, education, and other services are often offered as part of an addiction treatment program. They can help to prevent relapse and also offer relief from stress by helping individuals to set up a plan and better understand what to expect during recovery.
- Laugh often. As the old adage stipulates, “laughter is good medicine.” It can help to relieve stress. Mayo Clinic reports that laughter can temporarily improve circulation; ease muscle tension; increase oxygen to the heart, lungs, and muscles; and produce healthy endorphins that act to reduce stress. Laughter can also reduce pain, strengthen the immune system, and heighten a person’s personal level of satisfaction, which is important during recovery. A good sense of humor can go a long way in addiction recovery.
- Keep up a healthy social life. Staying connected socially with individuals committed to recovery and engaging in healthy interpersonal relationships can bring positive results. Stay away from things, people, and places that are reminders of drug/alcohol use as these can be stressors. Addiction can be isolating and maintaining healthy social interactions can improve relationships, which are important to a sustained recovery.
- Set attainable goals and rewards for reaching them. Start small and celebrate victories.
- Keep priorities in line and don’t be afraid to say no to things that may become overwhelming. It is easy to take on too much and thus increase stress. During recovery, it is important to try to keep stress to minimum by potentially scaling back on things when possible.
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.