Stress and Addiction
Stress does more than make you feel bad. It is a known risk factor for addiction. Stress refers to the processes around how we perceive, judge, or respond to a situation that is physically or emotionally challenging, threatening, or harmful.1
While stress that is time-limited and related to moderate challenges can be beneficial, repeated or chronic stress can do a lot of harm. This includes making you more vulnerable to substance abuse.1 For those in recovery, it is also a significant risk factor for relapse.1
Types of Stress
Stress is completely normal. It can even save your life by activating certain physiological responses in a life-threatening situation.2
The National Institutes of Mental Health breaks stress down into the following categories:3
- Routine stress. This relates to the normal pressures of work, daily obligations, and family life.
- Stress related to a sudden, distressing change. Examples of changes that may produce this kind of stress include job loss, the onset of a disease, divorce, or a major financial setback.
- Traumatic stress. This is stress that arises in situations where you fear for your safety. It can be brought on by an assault, a car accident, combat, a natural disaster, or other trauma. You can also experience this type of stress from witnessing a traumatic event.
Stress can be either acute or chronic:4
- Acute stress arises after a specific challenging or threatening event, such as having to give a presentation at work or avoiding a dangerous situation like a car accident. This type of stress can be helpful in getting you through the event successfully.
- Chronic stress is ongoing, resulting from repeated stressful situations that produce stress hormones.
How Stress Affects Your Health
While stress can come and go, stress that persists can affect you in a myriad of negative ways. When you go through a stressful event, your stress hormones such as cortisol increase, and your body prepares itself for a flight-or-fight response.5
According to Canada’s Centre for Studies on Human Stress, most experts on the topic feel that the human body was not designed to handle constant activation of the stress response system.4 Chronic stress can increase the risk of many health problems including:4
- Heart disease.
- High cholesterol.
- Type II diabetes.
- Decreased immune responses.
Chronic stress is also linked to an increased risk of depression and anxiety.4,6
How Is Addiction Related to Stress?
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), one of the main reasons that people use drugs is to feel better, for example to alleviate stress.7 This may seem like an effective coping strategy to start, but continued substance use is associated with a whole range of lifestyle changes that may cause you more stress in the long run. For example, drug and alcohol abuse may lead to:8
- Having more arguments with your loved ones.
- Giving up activities that used to make you happy and relieve stress.
- Ignoring your obligations at school, at work, or with your family. This could result in job loss, debt, falling behind with schoolwork, or family conflicts—all of which may increase your stress.
- Putting yourself in risky situations that could lead to being in trouble with the law or endangering yourself or someone else.
Substance use can also worsen your mental health symptoms.9 So if stress is already contributing to anxiety or depression, reaching for drugs or alcohol to cope may only exacerbate the problem.
Continuing to use substances to cope with life’s stressors may also lead you down a dangerous path to addiction. For those in recovery from addiction, it may also trigger relapse.1 There are better ways to manage stress. See below for some healthy tips to feel better when life brings you challenges.
Has your stress been leading you to use more alcohol or other drugs than you normally would? Take our addiction assessment today. It’s fast, free, and completely confidential.
Dealing with Stress in Sobriety
Stress is a normal part of everyone’s lives. How you deal with stress can make a huge difference in your physical and mental health. Coping well with stress is also critical to staying in recovery from addiction.
Rather than using substances to feel better when you’re overwhelmed by stress, try some of these tips from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services:6
- Keep a journal. Simply writing down your thoughts when you’re going through stressful experiences can help you deal with those experiences.
- Meditate. Making time to sit still and be quiet for a set period of time can relieve stress and anxiety. It might be difficult to quiet the mind at first, but practicing regularly will make it easier. There are many meditation apps that will help guide you through this practice. Many are specifically designed for beginners.
- Sleep. Getting adequate rest is vital for your physical and mental health. Aim for 7 to 9 hours each night.
- Exercise. Moving your body is beneficial to you in so many ways, from making you feel better physically to improving symptoms of anxiety and depression.
- Practice deep breathing. Taking deep breaths works to relieve stress because it forces your body to breathe more slowly, and the extra oxygen you take in sends messages to the brain to calm the body.
- Practice self-care. Don’t forget about your own needs. Just taking time to read, take a bath, or enjoy a favorite hobby can improve your mood.
- Talk to your loved ones. Sometimes, just expressing your concerns out loud eases stress. Also, your loved ones may be able to offer some suggestions or solutions for some of the problems you’re facing.
- Volunteer. Helping others makes you feel good, and it’s a great way to make new friends and increase your support system.
- Take care of outstanding obligations. Feeling behind or disorganized increases stress. If you have bills that need to be paid, pay them. If you need to make appointments or attend to other responsibilities, getting them done will make you feel more in control.
- Get professional help if you need it. If you’re unable to manage your stress on your own, get help. You can consider seeking out a counselor or therapist. If you’re struggling with substance abuse as well, you may need to look for a professional addiction treatment provider.
- Sinha R. (2008). Chronic stress, drug use, and vulnerability to addiction. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1141, 105–130.
- American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Stress effects on the body.
- National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). 5 Things You Should Know About Stress.
- Centre for Studies on Human Stress. (n.d.). Acute vs. Chronic Stress.
- Miller, S. C., Fiellin, D. A., Rosenthal, R. N., & Saitz, R. (2019). The ASAM Principles of Addiction Medicine, Sixth Edition. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer.
- U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Office on Women’s Health. (2019). Stress and your health.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2017). What Is Addiction?
- American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association, 2013.
- National Institute on Mental Illness. (2017). Understanding Dual Diagnosis.