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 Stress Impacts Addiction and What You Can Do about That Relationship

People can grow addicted to harmful substances for a variety of reasons.

According to the Mayo Clinic, factors that can significantly raise the likelihood of you developing some form of substance addiction include mental health disorders, your family history, and the current situations involving your friends and family.

The reality is that if you aren’t careful, it can become very easy to fall prey to the perceived allure of addictive substances.

Those are not the only factors that can place you at greater risk for developing an addiction, however. Stress can also play a large role in how willing you are to use addictive substances.

Stress Hormones May Be Causing People to Crave Addictive Substances

An article published earlier this year by Tufts Now shines a spotlight on experiments being conducted by neuroscientist Klaus Miczek and his colleague, research assistant professor Herb Covington. Thanks to the experiments they have performed, a clearer picture of how stress can lead people to become addicted is starting to develop.

Experiments conducted on various animals have revealed that exposure to social stress can cause behavioral changes that sustain for extended periods of time. The exposure doesn’t even have to last that long for the changes to take hold.

There’s an interesting chain of progression that goes from when stress is first experienced leading up to when an addictive substance is sought after.

It starts with exposure to the stressful situation as that will subsequently lead to stress hormones being released by the brain. Those hormones then trigger specific dopamine neurons. After those dopamine neurons have been triggered, the increased craving for addictive substances is increased.

Why We Turn to Addictive Substances to Deal with Stress

If stress hormones do cause certain changes in the brain that eventually result in us wanting to consume an addictive substance of some kind, there is another important question that emerges. That question: Why do we have a tendency to look for addictive substances when we are dealing with a stressful situation?

This is not some kind of new phenomenon after all. Drinking after work is a habit for many and from there, it can develop into something more harmful.

Part of the reason why many people lean on alcohol and other addictive substances when they are feeling stressed out could be because of how those items can affect the brain.

As noted by Healthline, alcohol in particular is a sedative. In that capacity, alcohol can work as a kind of stress reliever. You can feel better and become more relaxed as a result of you having a drink.

Going back to the risk factors mentioned earlier, it’s also possible that we lean on addictive substances while in the throes of a stressful situation because we’ve observed others in our lives doing so in the past and have adopted that habit as our own.

Combine the immediate effects that a substance can have on us with the at-times difficult to struggle against inertia of a way of life we’ve grown accustomed to and it becomes easier to understand why people become addicted.

The Different Sources of Stress

For the average person, stress is completely unavoidable. If you go to school or work, chances are you will feel pressure of some kind.

You can probably think back to some of your high school days and recall just how stressful it was getting prepared for big exams and presentations. For those who are now members of the workforce, deadlines for projects are frequent sources of stress.

Traumatic events that took place earlier in your life can also make you more prone to feeling stressed out later on. That early event may also serve as a constant source of stress that becomes very difficult to get away from.

Per Psychology Today, chronic stress can increase our motivation to use and abuse addictive substances. Unless you can find some way to reduce the amount of stress you experience on a regular basis, you may find it harder and harder to fight against addiction. That is why it is essential for people to seek out a form of addiction treatment that works for them and significantly lowers the number of stressful situations they have to be in.

 How to Cope with Stress and Addiction

One of the best ways for you to get rid of your tendency to use addictive substances is to remove yourself from overly stressful situations. Quitting your job or your studies may not be options, but you can at least address the other sources of chronic stress that may be plaguing you at the moment.

Another option is to check in to a rehab or addiction treatment facility. While at a rehab facility, you can focus more on yourself and leave behind the stressful situations that have grown to characterize your everyday life. Even a temporary stay may be able to work wonders and ease you off of your addiction.

Stress may be inescapable and addictive substances enticing, but you don’t have to give in to either of them.