Everyone has experienced stress or anxiety at some point in their life. But for some individuals, it’s more than just a passing feeling—it’s a chronic condition that can increase their risk of developing an addiction. Research has shown that chronic stress and anxiety are linked to higher substance use and abuse levels. Let’s look at how this happens and what can be done to reduce the risk of addiction.
When stressed or anxious, individuals may try to find ways to cope with those feelings. Some drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, or self-medicate with drugs to deal with their emotions. This is especially true if the person feels they have no other way to cope with their stress or anxiety. Over time, this can lead to an unhealthy reliance on these substances, and eventually, addiction sets in.
Recent research also suggests that chronic stress and anxiety can directly affect the brain’s reward system. This means that when someone is under prolonged periods of stress or anxiety, they may be more likely to seek out substances to relieve those feelings. This could explain why so many people struggling with addiction cite emotional issues as one of the main reasons for using drugs or alcohol.
The good news is that treatments available for stress and anxiety can help reduce the risk of developing an addiction. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one treatment that helps individuals learn how to manage their thoughts and emotions in healthy ways. In addition, it can help them develop coping mechanisms that don’t involve substance use, such as meditation, exercise, massage, acupuncture, positive thinking, and creative expression, such as art therapy.
Other therapies, such as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), focus on teaching skills like mindfulness, emotion regulation, distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness, and more—all tools that can help someone manage their stress better without needing to turn to substance use as a coping mechanism. Instead, the goal is to decrease stress and anxiety and build skills for long-term recovery from mental health disorders and addictive behaviors.
Chronic stress and anxiety can be significant risk factors for developing an addiction due to their effect on the brain’s reward system. Fortunately, treatments available can help individuals learn how to manage these emotions in healthy ways without turning to substance use as a form of relief or escape from reality. With the right treatment plan explicitly tailored towards reducing stress levels while building critical recovery skills—such as mindfulness training—individuals struggling with mental health disorders have a greater chance of avoiding relapse into addictive behaviors down the line.