Does Anxiety Make Individuals More Likely to Use Addictive Substances?

Research shows that living with an anxiety disorder can make individuals more likely to use addictive substances. Here's why.

Financial difficulties, health problems, legal trouble, relationship conflicts, and the challenges of everyday life can trigger anxiety, the body’s natural response to stress. Oftentimes, addictive substances like drugs and alcohol can be a quick remedy for some of the uncomfortable feelings produced by anxiety. Unfortunately, this pattern of behavior can lead to addiction.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates that 20 percent of individuals diagnosed with an anxiety disorder also have a substance use disorder. Living with the psychological distress, emotional turmoil, and physical symptoms associated with anxiety can make individuals more likely to use addictive substances as a form of temporary relief. Sadly, drugs and alcohol often make symptoms of anxiety worse. Fortunately, learning about anxiety disorders and how they can increase the risk of substance abuse can help anxious individuals avoid substance abuse and the cycle of addiction.

Difference Between Anxiety & Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety is a natural human reaction that works as an alarm system to keep us safe from perceived danger or threats. When individuals feel threatened or stressed, their body starts to experience physical sensations of anxiety. These can include a quickened heartbeat, rapid breathing, tense muscles, sweaty palms, a queasy stomach, or trembling hands or legs. Generally, these sensations fade as the perceived threat that triggered the stress response dissipates.

Anxiety disorders, on the other hand, cause intense, excessive worry and fear that never seems to go away. In addition to interfering with daily activities, the emotions triggered by anxiety disorders are difficult to control. The symptoms, which can persist over a long period of time, are generally out of proportion to the actual danger. Sometimes, anxiety disorders cause worry, apprehension and uneasiness when there’s nothing to fear. This severe form of anxiety can even cause us to avoid places, people, or situations altogether.

The most common anxiety disorders diagnosed today include:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), severe distress about general, everyday concerns that cause constant worry, restlessness, and an inability to concentrate.
  • Acute stress disorder (ASD), a severe form of anxiety that occurs immediately after a traumatic event. The symptoms, which include chest pain, headaches, difficulty breathing, sweating, and heart palpitations, generally last a month or less.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a debilitating form of anxiety that can develop after a traumatic event. Common symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, irritability, insomnia, paranoia, and hypervigilance. ASD symptoms that persist beyond a month typically indicate PTSD.
  • Panic disorder, spontaneous panic attacks that trigger shallow breathing, sweating, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and chest pain.
  • Social anxiety causes extreme self-consciousness around others.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), an intense form of anxiety that causes uncontrollable, recurring thoughts that lead to compulsive repetitive behaviors.
  • Phobias, severe anxiety caused irrational fear of an object, situation, or animal.

Even though each of these forms of anxiety differs in a variety of ways, they can all be debilitating and can increase your risk of substance abuse.

How Do Anxiety Disorders Make Individuals More Likely To Use Addictive Substances?

Research shows that living with an anxiety disorder can make individuals more likely to use addictive substances. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that individuals with anxiety are twice as likely to suffer from substance abuse compared to individuals unaffected by an anxiety disorder. Generally, they have an increased risk because:

  • Drugs and alcohol can provide temporary relief from anxiety-induced emotional distress
  • Prescription drugs prescribed to ease pain can provide short-term relief from physical anxiety symptoms
  • Severe psychological symptoms of anxiety can compel individuals to try to self-medicate their agony

Anxious individuals often seek relief from emotional anguish

Anxiety disorders can cause individuals a lot of emotional distress. For example:

  • Living with excessive worry and feeling agitated, irritable, or restless can compel individuals to drink to help take the edge off.
  • Not being able to sleep at night can cause individuals to overuse prescription medications such as Ambien, Lunesta, Restoril, or Xanax.
  • Individuals looking to completely dissociate from their reality may find themselves relying on ketamine, PCP, LCD, and other hallucinogens.
  • Fatigue and an inability to concentrate can make individuals take energy-producing stimulants such as cocaine, methamphetamine, and prescription stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin.

The temporary relief individuals may feel when using these substances is often followed by a crash after the substances wear off. This cycle can cause them to continue to use the substance. Sadly, this can lead to misuse, and eventually, addiction.

Prescription painkillers and opioids can provide temporary relief from physical anxiety symptoms

Anxiety can also cause physical pain such as tense muscles, headaches, heart palpitations, trembling, shallow breathing, stomach pain, nausea, and headaches. Many individuals take prescription painkillers to avoid this kind of physical pain, which can be debilitating and interfere with their daily lives. But misusing these substances, even if they are legal, can lead to substance misuse, abuse, and sadly, addiction.

Anxious individuals may feel compelled to self-medicate their psychological distress with drugs or alcohol

In addition to making individuals feel like they live in a state of impending doom, anxiety disorders can make people feel helpless and hopeless which can lead to substance use. At the same time, anxiety can cause paranoia, hallucinations, and delusions that can also lead to increased drinking and drug use.

Anxiety can cause brain changes that can increase vulnerability to substance use

Constant anxiety actually causes the amygdala, a tiny almond-shaped gland that regulates emotions and mood, to grow larger. This often causes hyperactivity. Anxiety also weakens the connection between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. When this happens, individuals have difficulty reasoning rationally. These brain changes can make individuals more susceptible to drugs and alcohol and more impulsive altogether.

Brain-Focused Care That Treats Anxiety and Substance Use Disorders

Even though anxiety and substance abuse disorders differ, both conditions originate in the brain. That’s why we take a brain-focused approach to treating mental health disorders and addiction challenges. We work hard to restore the brain to an ideal state of health by combining innovative brain science with evidence-based therapy techniques, nutrition, and exercise. Our dual diagnosis program is specifically designed to help individuals overcome mental health and addiction challenges. These challenges don’t have to continue to be your story. Let us help you recover and begin again. Contact StoneRidge Centers today to learn more.

Innovative, Evidence-Based Therapies

Because mental health and addiction concerns are so often interconnected, we utilize research-based approaches with evidence-based outcomes that promote overall healing and recovery.

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Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)
This low-impact magnetic stimulation activates neurons inside the brain, relieving symptoms associated with depression and anxiety.

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qEEG/Brain Mapping
Using brain scanning and readings, we create a map of our patients' brains, helping us develop more targeted and effective treatments.

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Neurofeedback
This process assists patients in visualizing their own brain functionality through continuous EEG readings.

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Spravato Therapy
We use carefully monitored doses of Spravato to help patients struggling with complex mental health disorders, including severe depression.

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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Patients use this practice to help reframe intrusive or negative thought patterns and develop coping techniques for long-term recovery.

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Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
This practice helps patients learn to regulate emotions, communicate more effectively, and process their own thoughts and feelings..

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Eye Movement Desensitization (EMDR)
Licensed and trained therapists guide patients through this technique for managing stress and anxiety on an ongoing basis.

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Individual Therapy
Patients experience one-on-one therapy sessions with a licensed therapist to provide a safe and private place to recover and heal.

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Group/Family Therapy
Patients can practice the skills and techniques they have learned in treatment with others in a safe, therapist-guided space. .
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