Everyone experiences stress from time to time. It can be mild, such as running late for an appointment, or severe, such as experiencing the loss of a loved one.
Chronic stress brings with it a hidden danger, though, because stress and addiction often co-occur. Stress is also a major factor for relapse once you’re in recovery.
Reducing stress and learning to cope with it effectively is an important focus in treatment.
How Stress Affects Mind and Body
Stress affects nearly every system in your body. When a stressful situation occurs, your body releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones lead to the body’s “fight or flight” response. When the stress passes, these hormone levels naturally decrease. But prolonged stress can keep these hormones circulating in the bloodstream, and this can have a profound effect on your physical and mental health.
Chronic stress leads to serious health problems. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, prolonged stress can have devastating effects on your immune, reproductive, sleep and digestive systems and can cause heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression and anxiety, along with myriad other illnesses.1
Stress and addiction act on the brain in similar ways. Long-term stress and addiction both cause changes in brain function. These changes extend to the prefrontal lobe, which governs impulse control, motivation and the ability to cope with stress, among other functions.
The Relationship Between Stress and Addiction
According to a study published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, substantial research has found a significant association between stress and the motivation to abuse drugs or alcohol.2
A number of major theories identify stress as an important factor in developing an addiction. Psychological models of addiction view substance abuse as a coping mechanism for stress. Neurobiological models explain how stress causes changes in the reward, learning and stress pathways in the brain, and these can intensify cravings and lead to compulsive drug use.
Stress in childhood that results from abuse, neglect and other traumas dramatically increases the risk of substance abuse and addiction later on. Stress early in life decreases the brain’s ability to organize information and execute tasks, reduces behavioral and emotional control and contributes to poor decision making and greater impulsivity. Chronic stress later in life is highly associated with mood and anxiety disorders, which also increase the risk of substance abuse as a way of coping.
Reducing Stress Lowers Your Risk of Addiction
Although drugs and alcohol may initially seem to reduce stress and promote relaxation, they actually interfere with your body’s ability to cope with stress effectively, and this can lead to heavier substance abuse and the development of an addiction. Reducing stress can lower your risk of addiction, and if you’re in recovery, it can help prevent a relapse.
Treatment helps individuals develop the skills and strategies they need to reduce and cope with stress. These include:
- Deep breathing. Deep-breathing exercises reduce stress hormone levels immediately to leave you feeling calmer.
- Meditation. Research shows that daily meditation not only reduces stress on the spot, but it also helps your body respond to it better in the future.
- Exercise. Regular exercise is a potent stress reducer. It lowers stress hormone levels and promotes the release of feel-good chemicals in the brain that help you relax.
Reducing stressors in your life is another important way to lower your overall stress. If you’re overloaded at work or home, prioritizing tasks and avoiding taking on new ones whenever possible can help minimize stressors. Focusing on the things you’ve accomplished in a day rather than on the things that were left undone is a mindset that can leave you feeling relaxed rather than stressed at the end of the day.
If you’re struggling with chronic stress, therapy can help you develop the skills you need to reduce and cope with it. Getting professional help can lower your stress and improve your quality of life and help prevent the heavy substance abuse that can lead to addiction.