Most people experience some form of stress during their lives. You may be nervous about a job interview, moving to a new home, dealing with a physical injury, or even getting married. These stressors may make your heart pound or your palms sweaty, temporarily. When you are unable to manage your stress properly or you experience what is known as chronic stress, you may have more pronounced and prolonged reactions. In addition, the relationship between chronic stress and addiction means that you may be more vulnerable to addictive behaviors or relapse.
When does stress become chronic stress? Usually, the effects of stressful situations do not last long. You may experience some physical symptoms in the moment and then return to normal functioning once the stressful moment has passed.
Chronic stress is a nearly constant state of heightened alertness that puts pressure on your body for an extended period of time. You may experience chronic stress if you have a high-pressure job, are experiencing financial difficulties, or are in a challenging or abusive relationship. When you are under chronic stress, your whole body is affected. You may have several physical or psychological symptoms that can make functioning on a daily basis more trying.
Explained in terms of physical responses, chronic stress decreases the gray matter volume in your brain region that is associated with cognitive control and stress regulation. The part of the prefrontal cortex that is involved in deliberative cognition is shut down by stress. Your stressed brain loses the ability to be reflective and becomes automatic. When you experience chronic stress, you are more prone to give in to impulses like smoking, overeating, alcohol abuse, and prescription drug abuse to cope with your stress.
Stress and Vulnerability to Addiction
The relationship between chronic stress and addiction means that you may be more vulnerable to addiction. Research has proven a link between chronic stress and the motivation to use and abuse substances such as drugs and alcohol. For example, adverse childhood experiences such as physical and sexual abuse, neglect, domestic violence, and family dysfunction are associated with an increased risk of addiction. People with an unhappy marriage, employment dissatisfaction, or harassment also report increased rates of addiction.
The more stressors you have been exposed to in your life, the greater the chances are that you will become addicted to drugs or alcohol if you do not properly address your chronic stress. When you are stressed out, you are more likely to turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate, to attempt to cope with the tension and to relieve the symptoms of your anxiety and depression. Self-medicating is an unhealthy coping mechanism, though, that can actually lead to more severe physical and emotional symptoms.
Chronic Stress and Self-Medication
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) warns that the symptoms of anxieties, such as those developed when you are under constant and chronic stress, can make the symptoms of alcohol or drug abuse worse, and vice versa. An anxiety disorder may lead to using alcohol or other substances to self-medicate or alleviate anxiety symptoms. However, those with anxiety disorders may find that alcohol or other substances can make their anxiety symptoms worse. And those with anxiety are two to three times more likely to have an alcohol or other substance abuse disorder at some point in their lives than the general population.
Alcohol or drugs often cause panic attacks, and experiencing panic, such as that associated with chronic stress, is a risk factor for a relapse among people with a substance abuse disorder. Alcohol abuse commonly begins before or at the same time as panic disorder symptoms.
Stress and Relapse
When you have successfully completed addiction treatment and are in recovery, the relationship between chronic stress and addiction can play into your vulnerability to relapse. Exposure to stress is a factor in relapse susceptibility, just as drug-related stimuli and drugs themselves can be. Research data suggests that, in the case of cocaine dependence for example, stress and drug cue-induced distress states produce a similar compulsive drug-seeking state that is associated with relapse vulnerability. Also, in alcoholics, negative mood, stress-induced alcohol craving, and blunted stress and cue-induced cortisol responses have been associated with alcohol relapses.
Treating Stress and Addiction
When you need help with chronic stress and addiction, reach out to Hope by the Sea. You may be one of the 47.6 million Americans struggling with a mental health disorder, possibly from your chronic stress, as well as an alcohol or substance use disorder. We can help. Our team of highly trained professionals can help you heal and begin your journey of recovery. We offer many unique, evidence-based therapies designed to help you get on or get back on the road toward lasting recovery. Hope starts here!