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Stress and Addiction

Stress and stress management are key components in mental health. There's a clear relationship between stress and addiction as the two can feed off of each other. Unhealthy levels of stress alone can lead to a host of negative mental and physical consequences.

What is Stress?

Stress refers to physical or mental strain caused by an event or a series of events in someone’s life. When put in stressful positions, the body releases a series of hormones, the most well-known being Cortisol. This response primes the body to either face the threat (fight) or run away (flight). The heart beats faster and you breathe more in order to get more blood and oxygen into the muscles for physical readiness. This type of response helped keep our early ancestors safe from threats like wild animals and other people meaning them harm, but it hasn’t adapted as quickly as modern living and technology. In some people, there can be a dangerous link between stress and addiction.

Different Kinds of Stress

Acute Stress

Acute stress refers to relatively low intensity events that cause a fight or flight response in the body. This type of stress can be as simple as exercise and the strain that puts on the body, or thrill-seeking activities like skydiving which illicit a much larger stress response. Acute stressors also have defined beginnings and ends. A defined end point helps the body realize the threat is gone and it can start to relax.

Arguments with your significant other, a critical review from a superior, and someone burglarizing your home while you’re away all represent acute stressors. These serious examples are all somewhat short lived and afterward the body can begin walking itself back out of the stress response. Hormone levels normalize, the heart slows to a resting rate because the cause for the stress is gone. The other major type of stress isn’t handled by the brain quite the same.

Chronic Stress

As the name suggests, this type of stress may occur frequently and have no defined end point. Because the part of our brain that governs the stress response is so ancient, the body reacts the same in many different situations. Whether you’re being held at gun point or stuck in traffic, the body releases the same hormones and readies you to act.

The issue with chronic stress is that the body may not have the same chance to calm down as it would after acute stress. Chronic stressors include:

  • Frequent money problems
  • A terrible job
  • Frequent mental abuse
  • Frequent physical abuse

These kinds of stimulation continuously trigger the brain to start the body’s stress response. While acute stress helps maintain the ability to respond correctly to stressful situations, chronic stress can affect both the body and mind negatively.

Consequences of Unhealthy Stress

Physical

If the body is constantly in high alert, it doesn’t get the same opportunities to rest as it usually would. Because the body is constantly stressed, it is constantly releasing stress hormones to compensate. The availability of these hormones keeps organs throughout the body on high alert for no real reason. Physical side effects include:

  • Tension headaches and joint pain due to chronic muscle tightness.
  • Increased risk of panic attack due to prolonged rapid breathing.
  • Long periods of increased heart rate increase risk for:
    • Heart Disease
    • Stroke
    • Heart Attack
  • Chronic fatigue and metabolic disorder due to hormonal imbalances.
  • Fluctuating appetites along with increased stomach discomfort.
  • Increased likelihood of diarrhea and constipation.
  • Irregular menstrual cycles.

The constant activation of the body’s stress response wears down on almost every major organ. An especially important organ impacted by chronic stress is the brain and this condition causes many mental effects as well.

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Mental

Recent research on the brain and stress have found that the connection is stronger than previously believed. Chronic stress can alter the balance of white matter and grey matter in the brain. Grey matter is made up of neurons (braincells) and white matter is primarily myelin, which is a fatty connective tissue that links the braincells together.

Studies of people dealing with chronic stress found that they had a higher proportion of myelin in their brain, allowing certain parts of the brain to connect to others they’d usually be independent from. A common symptom presents as the fight or flight center of the brain being more well connected to the frontal cortexes, which is where most of our conscious decision-making skills are located. This increase in connectivity means that people suffering from chronic stress may be changing their brain to more quickly become stressed in the future. Ongoing stress issues can increase risk for:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Memory issues
  • Concentration issues
  • Sleep issues

Stress and Addiction

Every stage of addiction is impacted by stress in some way or another, and addiction itself is a form of stress. From forming the habits that lead to addiction, to interrupting recovery, stress can push people towards unhealthy drug use. Along with stress, the ways in which people respond to stress also impacts their likelihood of drug misuse.

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Forming Addiction

The unhealthy kinds of stress are more commonly associated with increased risk of addiction. Research shows that stressful, traumatic events like domestic abuse, sexual assault, and family dysfunction can all raise someone’s chances of experimenting with drugs and becoming addicted. Experiencing chronic stress like this during childhood elevates the risk factor as well.

These experiences are thought to interfere with people’s feeling of control over their life, while drugs allow them to directly change the way they feel. Self-medication is also a strong explanation for how people deal with chronic stress and traumatic stress. The short-term relief offered by the effects of different drugs can drive people to use in order to dull the pain they may feel when sober. Certain drugs, like alcohol, may feel like they make coping easier, but research shows that as people come down off of alcohol, they feel worse than before they started drinking.

During Recovery

Recovery can be an especially stressful time for many people trying to achieve sobriety. Conflicts with loved ones, struggling to stay clean, and feeling stuck in rehab are just a few stressful situations people can face while in active recovery. As a period of transition and change, recovery may feel like a rude awakening for people who have struggled with a use disorder, but pushing through with professional and personal help can get them to the next stage in healing.

During Sobriety

After exiting recovery and maintaining a successful sobriety, the ways in which stress impact your life return to a level similar to pre-addiction. Chronic stress, while already linked to addiction, now poses a greater threat because of past drug use patterns. Relapse is more likely when someone mismanages their stress and ends up in the same negative cycle that may have started their addiction in the first place. Luckily tools exist to fight stress and maintain a healthier lifestyle for continued sobriety and success.

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Dealing with Stress

Different stress in different people’s lives may require different methods of treatment, but there are common methods that can fight back against chronic stress.

Healthy Habits

Our mental and physical health are closely linked and one can certainly influence the other. If you maintain an exercise routine, healthy sleeping schedule, and healthy diet, mental health can often fall into place.

Along with physically healthy habits, taking steps to maintain mental health adds an additional layer of insulation from unhealthy stress. Recent research into mindfulness meditation has returned promising results in managing chronic stress levels. Similar mental practices like gratitude meditation help people feel more positively about their situation.

Support Structure

As social creatures, our relationships with others profoundly affects our experiences. Your ability to lean on a support structure of loved ones can help lead you through hard times like recovery. Struggling with poor relationships is mentally harmful in many ways, and it serves as a source for chronic stress.

Reaching out for professional help also helps limit the damage stress can do. Therapists and counselors are trained to recognize signs of dangerous behaviors and habits and can guide you through situations you may not have been able to deal with on your own.

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Struggling with Stress and Addiction?

If you recognize any of these issues in your life or the life of someone you love, don’t hesitate to get help. With the right resources, you can overcome the challenges of chronic stress and addiction.

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