The Relationship Between Stress and Substance Use

Posted on June 11, 2022

woman coping with stress by taking drugs

Research has shown a strong link between substance use and stress for decades. As an example, a special report issued by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) in November 2001 focused on the stress following the terrorist attacks on September 11 and the potential for that to harm those individuals more vulnerable to substance abuse or in recovery.

Much of what experts have learned in recent years regarding the connection between stress and substance abuse is thanks to new, more sophisticated brain-imaging technology, which has revealed specific brain regions associated with reward and addiction risk. The reality is that stress can alter the brain in the same way that addictive drugs can. Preclinical research on animals has shown that exposure to stress can enhance drug self-administration and reinstate drug-seeking behavior.

Self-Medicating Stress with Drugs

Many, if not most, people will self-medicate to deal with their emotions, particularly stress. This can take the form of eating certain foods to make someone feel better after a bad day. Others may do this when they are bored. Using drugs or alcohol to handle emotions or stress in this way may not be problematic in the short term, but over a more extended period, it can result in dependence and addiction. Even long-term use of food to self-medicate can cause many health issues.

The reasons why people self-medicate vary, as does how they choose to self-medicate. Understanding why someone decides to handle stress in this way can be helpful, as can understanding the signs of self-medicating:

  • Turning to alcohol or drugs when feeling anxious, stressed, or depressed
  • Drugs and alcohol worsen those feelings
  • Previous amounts of self-medicating no longer give relief
  • Other problems are multiplying
  • The person worries if they don’t have access to drugs and alcohol
  • Family and friends are worried about the individual’s substance use

Good Stress vs. Bad Stress

Not all stress is bad for a person. Some stress can be good. For instance, good stress is the emotion experienced when someone is excited about something like a date or a concert. It causes a rush of hormones and the pulse to quicken. What sets good stress apart from bad stress is that the person is not in any danger with good stress.

People generally describe stress as the bad type of stress, which comes from experiences or events that do not result in a good feeling. Bad stress comes in two forms — acute and chronic. Acute stress is linked to something that requires a quick response. Once the cause of the stress is dealt with, the person should be able to relax quickly. If that happens, this type of stress is not that harmful.

The kind of stress that can be more harmful is chronic stress. Events or experiences that cause this form of stress leave the person feeling like they can’t escape. Being unhappy in a job or at home can cause chronic stress, and it can exact a significant toll. People’s bodies aren’t equipped to deal with chronic stress, so this type of bad stress can cause physical and emotional problems if it goes on for a long time.

Managing Stress

Not everyone who experiences chronic stress will develop a substance abuse problem, but it does increase a person’s risk. Some stress is more manageable than others. For instance, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) happens when someone experiences a traumatic event like physical abuse, terrorism, or a natural disaster. PTSD is a serious illness, and anyone suffering from it should seek professional treatment.

No matter what type of stress someone has encountered, they can do things to lessen the impact. Learning to manage stress before a serious addiction issue occurs is an excellent place to start. Some tips for doing this include:

  • Practice self-care — Eat right, get plenty of sleep and engage in regular exercise to help feel better and cope with stress when it happens.
  • Focus — Try to concentrate on one challenge at a time to avoid feeling overwhelmed.
  • Keep calm — Practice avoiding confrontations that can exacerbate stress.
  • Talk about it—Sharing thoughts and emotions with someone else who can remain calm is an excellent way to process stressful experiences.

Learning healthier ways to handle stress is important, rather than turning to drugs or alcohol to cope.

A licensed mental health and substance abuse intensive outpatient program (IOP) in Scottsdale, Arizona, Rising Phoenix was created to offer a safe, welcoming, and nurturing environment where clients are not judged, but embraced, throughout their recovery process.

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