The Other Dark Cloud: The Link between Stress and Addiction (Part 1)

Drug addiction centers will often cite the many reports of people who suffer from substance addiction, whether it be drug addiction, alcohol addiction, or prescription medication addiction, who started using a substance to self-medicate for depression or another disorder. This may be commonly known in the general public—unfortunately, when information like this becomes known, people can dismiss the threats of substance abuse by saying, “I don’t have a disorder, so that won’t happen to me.”

What many people don’t realize is how often people begin to abuse drugs, alcohol, and prescription medication because of stress. And stress can happen to anyone.

It is part of our nature as humans to experience stress; the body produces its own chemicals to deal with all types of stress. It is widely recognized that our lives have become increasingly stressful. Stressful traffic has increased exponentially in the last decade, making longer commutes to and from work, eating away at our day. Many people are still facing the effects of the stressful economic recession of 2007. People don’t have the job security they once did. Our lives overall seem to be filled with more uncertainty than in previous generations. And to top it all off, we get into fights with people on social media. This is normal stress, and is inevitable, at it harms our quality of life.

Then there are the types of stress that become even more severe, especially when dealing with ongoing domestic abuse, emotional or physical. An accident or the loss of a loved one can also lead to deep and prolonged stress, or even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It can feel impossible to cope with such levels stress.

Any kind of stress that becomes prolonged, or is compiled from multiple areas of life, can be so overwhelming that the stress can no longer be managed. In that case, many people turn to alcohol, drugs, or prescription medication to ease their stress, getting hooked on that substance in the process.

Stress is physical

The American Psychological Association details [LINK: ] the many physical affects that stress has on the body. Stress tenses muscles, causing pain. Stress can make people breathe more quickly, which can be harmful to people with lung diseases such as asthma. Hyperventilating because of stress can even trigger a panic attack. Then, the body produces the stress hormones epinephrine and cortisol, and long-term or repeated triggering of these hormones also has damaging effects throughout the body. When we are stressed, our veins constrict to increase blood flow, and too much of this can have the same effects as high blood pressure.

Stress also disrupts sleep, making the mind work in overdrive and the body physically exhausted. This inability to relax can then lead to more stress, and a lack of focus, creating more stress and causing a vicious circle until the only solution one may find is to reach for the bottle of alcohol or pills, or a drug.

Stress on its own can change emotions and behaviors; the synapses in the brain that fire our neurons will shift. And if drugs, alcohol, or prescription medication are taken in order to feel better, the synapses will shift in greater numbers to encourage more of that pleasure-giving substance to fill the brain and block out the feelings stress.

Stress primes the body for abuse

Many studies discuss the role that stress plays in addiction, priming the body to be a ready receptor for the chemicals the drugs, alcohol, or prescription medication give to dull the experience of stress.

Stress management is key to prevention and treatment

While there is no way to prevent someone from turning to drugs, alcohol, and prescription medication to find relief, there are a few important strategies that can be employed with help from an addiction treatment center or on your own to defuse a stress-induced substance addiction.

First, if the stress is actually PTSD, you should be treated by a licensed physician or mental health professional (preferably both). Therapy is a regular tool of most addiction treatment centers.

Make sure your family is taken care of. Relationship tensions can cause significant stress; family counseling can be one way to resolve conflicts and heal the stress that may be damaging your life.

Make a concerted effort to avoid drugs and alcohol or prescription medication that isn’t taken under the watchful care of a medical professional.

Work on various life skills. What is the main source of your stress? If it is work, maybe seek out training that can give you the tools to reduce that work-related stress. A counselor or life coach can work with you on decision-making skills. Any improvement of skills can improve the quality of your life, reducing your stress in that way.

Treat the physical. If your body has been taxed by stress, do things to help your body repair. Visit a doctor to get a health check, or visit a physical therapist. A personal trainer can help you focus on your body, boosting your overall health as well as mood-enhancing endorphins through exercise. Seek out massage therapy, chiropractic treatments, or acupuncture. Physical well-being goes a long way toward helping mental and emotional well-being.

Practice meditation and yoga. Some people still naysay these practices, but meditation and yoga are proven to reduce stress hormones with a focus on mindfulness and relaxation, while improving the physical condition of the body. Many addiction treatment centers make mediation and yoga part of their regular substance abuse treatment practices.

However, if you are already addicted to drugs, alcohol, or prescription medication, or are worried that you might become addicted, don’t wait to get help. Addiction is addiction—there’s no “early” or “late” phase. Drug addiction treatment centers can help tackle both the substance addiction and the underlying stress that led to the substance addiction. If you are in La Jolla or the surrounding areas and want more information on addiction or treatment at our outpatient addiction treatment center, visit us at, or contact our office at 858-454-4357 (HELP).