Stress is often a two-edged sword. On one hand, it can be a healthy motivator for you to make positive changes in your life. On the other hand, it can make you more susceptible to developing an addiction. In fact, stress and addiction often co-occur. Learning skills to manage stress can help you in recovery from addiction, or it can help you avoid addiction in the first place.
What Is Stress?
Stress is a normal part of life. It can motivate us to make changes or achieve our goals. However, too much stress can cause us to feel overwhelmed. This can harm our physical and mental health, and it can especially impact you when you are dealing with a substance use disorder (SUD) or are even in recovery from substance addiction.
Stress is a well-known risk factor in the development of addiction and in the likelihood of relapse. The term “stress” refers to processes involving:
- response to harmful, threatening, or challenging events
Physical and Emotional Stress
Experiences of stress can be emotionally or physically challenging and activate stress responses and processes to adapt and regain stability. Examples of emotional stressors include:
- Interpersonal conflicts
- Loss of a relationship
- Death of a close family member
- Loss of a child
Physical stressors include:
- Being deprived of sleep or insomnia
- Extreme hyper- or hypothermia
- Drug withdrawal
Also, regular and binge use of some drugs that affect mental processes and perceptions can serve as pharmacological stressors.
How Stress Impacts Addiction
Stress is a key risk factor in initiating and maintaining an addiction. Stress also often plays a role in a person relapsing or failing treatment. Such risks are even higher if you are exposed to stress during early childhood or to chronic stress at any time. Stress is also an obstruction to recovery for people in active addiction.
Stressful life events, combined with a lack of effective coping skills may impact the risk of addiction by increasing an impulsive response and the need for self-medication. Trauma during early childhood is a factor that makes people more susceptible to stress later in life. Early adversity changes our genetics. When this occurs, we live in a persistent state of emergency.
Your place of employment is another place that supplies an almost regular exposure to chronic stress. People who work in jobs where they don’t see themselves as having a lot of control are susceptible to developing stress-related medical conditions.
Stressful events or situations don’t necessarily need to be harmful. What matters is how you interpret the stressors and how you cope with them. So, although it’s not possible to completely eliminate stress, you need to find ways to manage it.
Chronic vs. Normal Stress
Although stress is often linked to negative effects and distress, there is such a thing as “good stress.” Good stress is based on external and internal incentives that are mild or moderately challenging but have a limited length of time and result in responses that produce a feeling of accomplishment. This can be perceived as exciting and pleasant.
Conversely, intense, unpredictable, drawn-out stressors (like interpersonal conflict, loss of a loved one, or unemployment) can cause learned helplessness and depressive symptoms. The more prolonged, repeated, or chronic the stress is, the greater the risk for developing:
- substance use
- the common cold
- tension headaches
- teeth grinding
- tensing in the shoulders and neck.
Does Chronic Stress Increase Your Risk of Addiction?
Chronic stress can cause anxiety. Anxiety and chronic stress are both risk factors for developing an addiction. Experiencing early or chronic stress causes changes to your brain which affect your ability to manage and respond to any kind of stress.
When these changes happen, they affect three parts of your brain:
- Dopamine signaling – Dopamine is a chemical made in your body that makes you feel good.
- Serotonin production – Serotonin is the chemical that helps keep your mood balanced.
- Melatonin release – Melatonin helps regulate your sleep.
Therefore, chronic stress has an adverse effect on your body’s ability to feel well, balanced, and rested. These systems are also impaired by substance abuse.
6 Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms
When human beings are confronted with an external threat, they enter a state of “fight or flight.” When confronted with an internal threat, they enter a state of “accept or suppress.” People will go to exceptional lengths to avoid what they fear the most: an uncomfortable feeling.
It can be difficult to determine what a coping mechanism is because almost anything can be a way to avoid something if you use it the wrong way. Understanding healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms though can help you discover what your real feelings are so that you can get on with your life. Below are some unhealthy coping mechanisms.
1. Avoiding Everything That Isn’t “Positive”
People who insist that they can’t be around anyone who isn’t persistently positive aren’t as emotionally healthy as they seem. Individuals who are mentally strong are able to adjust to and accept life’s challenges and triumphs.
Keeping to yourself might seem like a healthy option, especially if you have to deal with people who annoy and aggravate you. But our need to connect with other people is one of our most primary needs and real strength is the ability to coexist with different people.
3. Romanticizing the Past
Trying to gloss over your past to the extent where you wish to return to a time when you weren’t happy is a way to divert your attention from the present. It is a way to try to return to a feeling you’re more comfortable with.
4. Overreacting to Small Issues
People who blow up over small, inoffensive triggers are frequently harboring deep unexpressed feelings. Getting your feelings out in a way that doesn’t exactly address problems nor does it necessarily solve them.
Since nicotine is addictive, smoking is an addiction on its own. If you have any sort of substance use disorder, you’re more likely to use tobacco. Also, you’re more likely to suffer from anxiety or depression. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 65- to 85% of people with an addiction are also smokers.
Studies also report that people in recovery are more likely to stay sober if they quit smoking too. Additionally, smoking is a risk factor for relapse. Individuals in recovery who smoke are more likely to relapse than those who don’t. So it’s evident that quitting nicotine at the same time that one quits using any other substance that he or she is addicted to can greatly help in recovery.
6. Stress Drinking
When it comes to stress and addiction, there is a strong link between stress and alcohol abuse. Alcohol dulls the effects of hormones that create the stress response. It changes brain functions and reduces anxious feelings. Drinking can also give temporary relief from stress and anxiety. Although, long-term use of alcohol can make it more difficult for the body to manage stress without using a drug.
Stress drinking creates a cycle where stress triggers a desire to drink and drinking makes it harder to manage the stressful things in one’s everyday life. Sometimes called self-medication, stress drinking can lead to problem drinking. It may provide some relief though, but it makes it harder to manage uncomfortable feelings in the long run.
What Are Some Helpful Coping Mechanisms for Stress?
You don’t need to make massive changes to your lifestyle to effectively cope with stress in your day-to-day life. Little changes can add up and make big differences in how you manage your stress. Healthy and helpful coping mechanisms for stress include:
- Proper nutrition – Skip your fast food meal a couple of times a week and choose a healthier option instead.
- Exercise regularly – Go for a walk after dinner or at a time that works with your schedule.
- Avoid drugs and alcohol – If you need help with this, talk to a doctor or therapist.
- Take time for leisure and rest – Don’t work through lunch time or forget to schedule time for yourself.
- Get enough sleep.
Practicing regular self-care builds up your reserves of strength and your ability to get through trying times.
Having more resiliency helps you function better when you’re under stress. When practicing self-care, it’s better to be consistent than to make big changes. You might take a spa day or a vacation from time to time, but it’s important to care for yourself every day in small ways too. If you don’t do that, a single spa day or grand vacation isn’t likely to reduce stress levels.
What is the Link Between Stress and Addiction Recovery?
Avoiding stress is an important goal to help you stay on track with your recovery. Because substance use can damage your brain, small stressful events or moments may seem huge.
If you’re used to handling stress by getting high or drunk, it can be extremely difficult to deal with stress when you’re sober. If you’re going through withdrawal from substances, it may be even more difficult to deal with stress while sober.
Detox is stressful on the body and the brain because of the effects of withdrawal. If you are detoxing, anything stressful can feel overwhelming.
Can Chronic Stress Increase Your Risk of Relapse?
As noted, stress and substance use can cause changes in your brain. These changes have an impact on neurotransmitters, which are how our brain sends signals. Stress can also damage dopamine receptors which “catch “neurotransmitters” the signals that help us feel good.
When the receptors are damaged, it is harder to feel happy. This may lead to:
- Other mood disorders
When you feel bad, using a substance might make you feel good quickly. However, that bad feeling is temporary and doesn’t help fix the damage caused by stress and addiction. Recovery is difficult and stressful. Thus, during recovery, people are often tempted to use alcohol or drugs to get some relief.
A relapse is most likely to occur within the first few weeks to 2 months of recovery. About 85% of people relapse within the first year. Withdrawal cravings can be especially strong during early recovery. This is because your ability to handle stress has been affected by your past substance use.
If a relapse does happen, the stress often returns at a more intense level. And you may experience more stress from using drugs or alcohol when you’re working on your recovery.
Tips To Manage Cravings
People, places, and things in your life that you connect with substance use can be sources of stress. They can trigger cravings that can be intense and stressful.
- Try to stay away from people who are using drugs or alcohol.
- Surround yourself with people who support you and your recovery.
- Consider taking a different route to avoid going by your favorite bar or where you purchased drugs.
- Explore new hobbies that don’t involve drug or alcohol use.
- Dispose of any paraphernalia you have that reminds you of substance use.
- Remember to take it easy on yourself. You’ll feel better able to manage these stressors as time goes on.
If you do relapse and start using again, you should remember that it’s not the end of the world. Be proud of every small victory and talk to a doctor or counselor to make sure you’re getting the appropriate help. As your recovery time increases so does your resiliency.
Has Stress Derailed Your Recovery?
Stress can have a negative effect on addiction recovery. If the stress of everyday life has caused you to relapse, you are likely to need professional help. At Harmony Ridge Recovery Center, you can enter one of our many levels of care depending on your needs. We can provide you with:
- Supervised Medical Detox
- Residential Treatment Programs –You will live in the treatment facility away from any triggers.
- Outpatient Programs – Our outpatient programs range from PHP which is comparable to residential except you go home in the evenings, to a standard outpatient program that only requires counseling sessions 2 or three times a week.
- Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP)
- Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP)
- General Outpatient Program (OP)
Harmony Ridge has a staff of caring and compassionate professional therapists and medical personnel. Thus, you don’t have to go through detox or addiction treatment at home. You don’t need to go through this in hiding anymore. Contact us today and discover what we can do for you.