Stress and Substance Abuse: How Strong is the Connection?

Recent advances in the study of addiction and the science of recovery have delivered strong evidence that a link exists between stress, drug use, drug abuse, and addiction. Stress has long been recognized as both a necessary element for personal growth and learning as well as a significant health hazard. In order for a human being to remain healthy, happy, and productive- some degree of stress is necessary. The question is, where is the balancing point before stress becomes a hazard- and how much of a risk of addiction does stress impose on and men and women?

Stress: The Addiction Connection

The research has shown time and again, that the initiation of drug use, drug abuse, and relapse are more likely to occur in persons who exhibit signs of stress or who report feeling stressed. A number of studies are currently in circulation in addiction medicine circles which offer compelling, statistically supported arguments for this claim.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, different people have different tolerances to stress or “stress thresholds.” They explain that stress has a physiological basis, and once the threshold is reached, the hypothalamus is engaged, releasing the “corticotropin-releasing hormones,” the stress hormone known more broadly as cortisol. When this happens, the individual receives a strong chemical signal within the brain that triggers pleasure and/or comfort seeing behaviors. 

How Much Stress is Too Much?

This idea has gained a great deal of traction in the world of addiction treatment. The notion that self-control can be compared to a muscle that has a limited amount of energy and a limited lifting capacity has taken root in treatment culture and practice. This is particularly true of evidence-based treatment programs. The simple reason for this that the idea is both backed up my massive amounts of statistical evidence- and it is strongly in agreement with the common intuition about self-control- ie; that it is limited.

Of course, there is no universal stress threshold that applies to everyone. One person’s resistance to stress is dependent on perceptions about one’s self, the type of stressor experienced, and underlying physiological factors rendering the individual’s capacity for self-control.

The studies promoting this view are largely unanimous in their findings. They show that persons exposed to stress;

  • Are more likely to abuse alcohol or other drugs
  • Are more likely to continue using alcohol or other drugs
  • Exhibit a decreased expressed interest in exhibiting self-control
  • Report increases ideations related to using drugs or alcohol
  • Report a sharp increase in interest in drugs which they have used before

The researchers agree that the biological mechanism that makes an individual capable of resisting temptation is a delicate one. Their findings support the notion that stress can disrupt the mechanism of self-control, deplete its chemical reserves- rendering the self-control mechanism effectively inoperative.

Addiction as a Disease Process

Over the years, the notion that addiction is not a moral failing, but the disease has received a great deal of push-back. There is some reason to resist the idea because if the moral component of drug abuse is removed, it would seem that addicts would have one less emotional resource to draw upon in their recovery.

Still, the evidence that addiction is, in fact, disease and not a character flaw is strongly supported by these findings on stress and drug use. While these developments may take some moral impetus away from the recovering addict- it is a virtual certainty that advances in addiction treatment will develop as a result of this relatively new understanding.

Evidence-Based Addiction Treatment

Divided roughly into Pharmacotherapies and Behavioral Therapies, evidence-based addiction treatment is based on empirical, statistical, and medical evidence which shows a given treatment to have the effect of reducing use, abuse, and relapse- making recovery more likely.

The scientific movement which views self-control as limited physiological research has been a big part of the rise of the evidence-based treatment model.

Possibly the greatest advance has been the reduction in the perceived stigma of entering treatment as a confession of weakness or a moral failing. Recovering from an addiction may be difficult, but it is possible. Ceasing to be a “bad” or “weak person,” on the other hand- is not so straight forward. It would appear that removing the stigma of immorality from addiction has made it easier for those who need help to seek it.

Of course, when all is said and done- we are all still responsible for our own actions. The harm done to one’s self and others as the result of addictions is still the responsibility of the person who committed harmful actions. But it is widely recognized that forgiving one’s self is an important part of overcoming addiction- and by understanding the true nature of self-control, self-forgiveness becomes much more achievable.

How to Deal with Trauma in Sobriety

There is a very strong connection between trauma and addiction. One often leads to the other. People struggling to numb the effects of traumatic experiences in their lives will often self-medicate on drugs and alcohol. While this works as a quick-fix, continued abuse of these substances quickly leads to addiction, exposing the addict to additional trauma. On the other hand, trauma may be the result of a lifestyle of abusing drugs and alcohol.

Trauma and Addiction Co-occurrence

Trauma occurs as a result of experiences that are too disturbing that they overwhelm an individual’s ability to cope. This varies from person to person, depending on their resilience. For example, adults are generally more resilient in the face of traumatic experiences than children. Examples of traumatic events include sexual assault, child abuse, military combat, domestic violence, natural disasters, car accidents, battling life-threatening ailments and any other events that elicit fear, intense pain, and dreadful memories.

Unresolved trauma may lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which presents symptoms such as nightmares, anxiety, depression, irrational fear, and a predisposition to addiction. Alcohol and drugs offer trauma survivors temporary reprieve and escape from painful feelings giving them an illusion of control over their lives and the world around them. Unfortunately, substance abuse does more harm than good in the long run. It soon becomes a problem and instead of helping ease the pain causes more harm to the already suffering trauma survivor.

Another possible explanation for the addiction and trauma connection begins with substance abuse. The lifestyle of an addict exposes him/her to dangerous neighborhoods, unsavory acquaintances, and dangerous behavior. It is no surprise that most addicts are victims of crime, abuse, violence, accidents, and other traumatic events.
Treating trauma and addiction

Drug and alcohol abuse is a valid coping mechanism since it effectively dulls the emotional pain and suppresses the memory of trauma. Evidence of past trauma can be so well hid in some addicts that many treatment centers end up not noticing it. Non-trauma-focused, addiction treatments set up alcohol and substance abusers for relapses or other addictive behaviors such as gambling, overeating, and sexual promiscuity, among others.

Regardless of which comes first, trauma or addiction, both have to be treated if the sufferer is to lead a healthy life. One cannot maintain sobriety while still harboring unresolved trauma. It is recommended that addicts first detox before working on recovery from addiction and trauma in an integrative and comprehensive manner with clear minds and stronger bodies.
Fortunately, there are a number of effective treatment plans that help addicts kick their addictions and conquer their trauma. These include medication and comprehensive therapies that teach coping skills, mindfulness, problem-solving, and relapse-prevention skills that lead to lifelong sobriety and improved quality of life.

Dealing with Trauma in Sobriety

Getting over a traumatic experience is easier said than done. Most recovering addicts prefer not to face the pain and fail to realize how it is intertwined with their addictions until it is too late. They choose to bury and ignore past trauma with the hope that it will go away and as a result, are unable to maintain their sobriety.
After a successful detox and a commitment to stay sober with the help of coping tools and skills, the next step is to heal from your trauma. Dealing with trauma in sobriety can be a difficult task which does not happen overnight. With the right attitude, however, you can deal with and overcome your trauma while maintaining your sobriety.
Healing from trauma is a process
When you’ve numbed yourself for so long with drugs and alcohol, the feelings may flood back and overwhelm you during recovery. You must recognize this as progress. The healing process may be tough, but as long as you are moving from one stage to another, you are making progress.

Drugs and Alcohol Abuse Will Not Help

It is important to realize that using drugs and alcohol may numb the pain, but once the euphoric state of mind has passed, the symptoms of unresolved trauma will still be there and are likely to be more disruptive than ever. While there is a temptation to take a break from the pain caused by the traumatic event, you must realize that escapism by way of substance abuse will not help.

You Are Stronger Than You Know

If you have survived a traumatic event and addiction, you are strong enough to survive the recovery. You must stop seeking temporary safety and face your trauma with the knowledge that you are worthy of love and redemption.

Your Habit Makes Perfect Sense

Trauma survivors have every right to chase after feelings of safety, worth, control, and to numb their painful feelings. Trauma changes you, and it is only rational to turn to substance abuse even if it is for the illusion of normalcy. You must, therefore, realize that even though your habits are bad, your intentions are pure. You only need a new coping mechanism that is healthy.  To make meaningful and lasting life changes while recovering from addiction, one has to change their thoughts, behavior, relationships, environment, and face the trauma that fueled their addictions in the first place.

 

Depression and Substance Abuse: A Guide for Women

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, women are twice more likely to suffer depression than men.  The National Institute on Drug Abuse also places the number of women above age 18 to have used drugs in their lifetime at 19.4 million.  With such compelling statistics, it is clear that depression and drug abuse are key issues among women in the country.

Below is a depression and substance abuse guide for women:

The relationship between depression and addiction

Research shows that there is a strong connection between major depression and substance abuse. This is mostly because the main factors that contribute to depression also play a part in substance abuse disorders. Similarly, the various effects of addiction can mask or worsen the symptoms of mental illness. If you notice that your loved one has co-occurring depression and substance abuse, you should consider discussing the problem with them affectionately and compassionately before seeking a structured intervention.

Facts about depression and substance abuse

To identify the most effective treatment program for depression and addiction, here are a few facts you should know about the two disorders.

  • Generally, women have various reasons for using drugs and will use these substances in a different way than men.
  • There are times when women will respond differently to substances. For instance, they could have more drug cravings, become more sensitive to the effects of drugs due to sex hormones, or experience significantly different brain changes.
  • The risk of dying from a drug overdose or the effects of certain substances is higher in women than in men.
  • Women who are addicted to certain substances can experience panic attacks, anxiety, or even depression.
  • Factors that can trigger substance abuse and depression in women include domestic violence, divorce, death of a partner, or loss of child custody.

Substance use during pregnancy can pose a serious health risk to mother and unborn baby, both in the short and long term.

Common causes of depression

While the exact causes of depression have not been identified, there are several theories about the roots of the condition.

  • Brain structure and chemistry – brains of individuals with depressive disorders have a different structure from those without. The areas responsible for cognition, mood, sleeping, and metabolic function will have a unique appearance. Depression has also been linked to imbalances in brain chemicals that regulate moods, appetite, and energy levels.
  • Environmental factors – a history of emotional, sexual or physical abuse and a disorderly home environment during childhood can contribute towards depression in adolescence or adulthood. The good news is that trauma therapy can help heal the wounds inflicted by these experiences. Some scientists have also linked depression to genetics, with people who have relatives suffering from the condition being at risk of developing the same condition.
  • Situational factors – some of the experiences and setbacks we face in life can also result in depression if the emotions surrounding the events are not resolved.

Signs and symptoms to look out for

It is important to identify depression and substance abuse in good time to seek the necessary interventions. Here are some of the signs and symptoms to look out for.

  • Mood swings, erratic behavior and shifts in personality
  • Substance abuse affecting school, work, family obligations and responsibilities
  • Problems with concentration and memory
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Withdrawing and loss of interest in hobbies and daily activities
  • Unintentional weight loss or gain, poor hygiene
  • Suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts
  • Inability to control the amount of time spent using drugs
  • Financial problems

Consequences of untreated depression and substance abuse

When ignored or left untreated, depression and substance abuse disorders can have serious consequences. Long-term health problems may include

  • Heart disease
  • Respiratory complications and diseases
  • Liver and kidney damage or disease
  • Skin infections
  •  Stroke
  • Brain damage
  • Overdose or death
  •  Cognitive defects

In case one abuses drugs during pregnancy, the baby may be born with several health problems. These include low birth weight, congenital disabilities, premature birth, small head size or sudden infant death syndrome.

Types of depressive disorders

Depression comes in many forms, making it important to know the different subtypes of the condition. The different forms are influenced by the cause of the symptoms, duration, and severity. Some common types of depressive disorders are major depressive disorder, persistent depressive disorder, bipolar, postpartum, seasonal affective disorder, and psychosis. All these types require attention and specialized treatment.

Treatment options and programs

Since depression and substance abuse affect women differently, treatment for the two conditions may be different than for men. Struggling with these conditions can bring feelings of isolation, loneliness, and worthlessness. Similarly, family members can feel frustrated and stressed. It is important, to be honest about the problem as you seek help.

In most cases, depression and substance abuse disorders will be treated using a combination of therapy and medications. Effective interventions and depression treatment will include antidepressant medication, cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing, trauma therapies, and family systems therapy.

There are different treatment options that you can choose from. These include outpatient services, intensive outpatient programs, partial hospitalization program, medical detox, residential treatment programs, and inpatient rehabilitation. It is important to choose the right treatment for the patient’s condition.

In conclusion, once a patient has received the necessary treatment, family and loved ones should offer the care and support they need to resume a normal life. There is always the possibility of relapse when it comes to depression and substance abuse. A strong support network will help the affected persons feel loved and valued, putting them firmly on the path to full recovery.