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chronic stress and drug abuse

After the events of the past year, more Americans are dealing with chronic stress than ever before. Factors like disease, widespread unemployment, political unrest, financial insecurity, increased isolation, and uncertainty have created the perfect storm of stress for months at a time. As 2021 begins and vaccines are distributed, many of us are wondering how these stressors will impact those in active addiction and recovery. Today, we will explore the link between chronic stress and drug abuse.

Chronic Stress Vs. Normal Stress

Before we get started, it is important to understand that a little stress is actually a good thing. Moments of moderate challenge are helpful for getting us through life. For example, if we did not worry about an exam at school or a presentation at work, it is unlikely that we would dedicate enough time to preparation. Some high achievers actually like the feeling of short bursts of acute stress; they chase these situations in order to get an adrenaline rush.

Chronic stress is entirely different. Defined as intense, prolonged, and unpredictable, these factors can negatively impact your mental health. Examples include the loss of a loved one, unemployment, and interpersonal conflict with those in your social circle. As we near the one-year mark of COVID-19, we now know that the coronavirus pandemic could also be considered a chronic stressor.

Stress and Health Risks

Perhaps more important than chronic stress itself is our response to it. We all cope with life’s challenges in different ways. Genetics, your personal experiences, and a history of trauma can all impact how you respond when times are tough. Think about your friends as an example. Who do you know that always seems relaxed about everything? On the other end of the spectrum, which of your friends reacts strongly to the slightest difficulty? We all fall somewhere within this distribution, and our responses may actually affect our health and well-being.

Chronic stress is a significant risk factor for many health concerns. Research shows that people who are perpetually anxious and tense have weaker immune systems. The Mayo Clinic lists the following as health risks for those whose stress-response systems have been activated for the long term.

  • Digestive issues
  • Headaches and muscle tension
  • Heart disease
  • Weight gain
  • Memory problems
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Insomnia and other sleep problems
  • Drug abuse and alcoholism

The Link Between Drug Abuse and Chronic Stress

Throughout human history, we have understood that stress increases a person’s vulnerability to addiction. However, over the last decade, our understanding of this connection has increased significantly. A combination of human studies, brain-imaging tools, and improved research methods have yielded a stunning array of new data about the intersection of chronic stress and substance abuse.

First, researchers note that our perception of stress is affected by many internal factors. These include our personality traits, prior emotional state, ability to regulate distress, our beliefs and expectations, any existing mental conditions, and our prior experiences.

They go on to describe the various models of addiction and how stress may fuel this process. In the psychological model of addiction, researchers assert that substance abuse emerges as a coping strategy. They say that the goal of using drugs or alcohol in this context is to reduce tension, decrease withdrawal-related anxiety, and self-medicate. On the other hand, neurobiological models propose that the brain’s reward, stress, and learning pathways may enhance craving and reduce inhibitions. Regardless, it is clear that those with a history of tension should be mindful about their substance use.

Additional findings from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) have indicated that a substantial link exists between stress and addiction.

These connections are…

Stress Changes the Brain

A new finding has demonstrated that chronic stress causes changes in the brain which are similar to those caused by ongoing drug use. This indicates that some people who are constantly tense may also be more vulnerable to addiction or relapse.

Long-Term Potentiation

This key mechanism is a cornerstone of the brain’s learning and memory processes. Researchers have found that it is also involved in both addiction and stress.


People who become addicted may already be hypersensitive to stress.

Risk Factor

Stressful life events can put people at an increased risk for drug abuse or alcoholism. Research shows that exposure to stress enhances self-administration of drugs and reinstates drug-seeking behavior among animals that have used substances.

Healthy Stress Responses

Stress is a part of life. You may not be able to control the global events of 2020 and 2021, but you can control the way you respond to them. By identifying positive coping mechanisms and self-care tactics, it is possible to reduce your risk for drug abuse, relapse, and related disorders.

Stress management techniques include…

  • Taking care of your body. Get enough sleep, eat a nutritious diet, and exercise often.
  • Relaxing regularly. Learn to meditate, try a deep breathing exercise, or practice yoga.
  • Laughing at the situation. A healthy sense of humor can help you to keep things in perspective when you’re feeling stressed.
  • Participating in hobbies. Read a book or paint a picture to distract yourself.
  • Finding support among friends. Instead of isolating, talk to your loved ones when you need to express your frustrations and fears.
  • Volunteering in your community. Helping others is a great way to make an impact and avoid a stress spiral.
  • Seeking professional help. Work with a counselor or addictionologist to learn new coping mechanisms and relapse prevention strategies.

Help for Substance Abuse in California

At Hope by the Sea, we provide comprehensive addiction treatment to people throughout the state of California. Our team of expert clinicians is equipped to assist those who are combatting chronic stress in addition to substance abuse or mental illness. For more information on our service offerings, contact our admissions team today. Hope Starts Here!