Stress is a negative emotional state that affects far more than just your mental health. It takes quite a toll physically as well. Stress is known to cause and aggravate a number of serious health issues. These include heart disease, diabetes, depression, and even Alzheimer’s. When it comes to addiction recovery, stress isn’t just a silent killer but a disruptive feeling that can sabotage your efforts. Read on to learn about the interconnectedness of stress and addiction relapse and how it might be the reason you struggle to stay sober.
How Stress Can Lead To Addiction
To better understand how stress can underscore attempts to get (and stay) sober, we must first look into how it can contribute to addiction in the first place. In most instances of alcohol or drug addiction, it’s brought about by a person using a substance as a coping mechanism for stress. Studies have shown that individuals who resort to such behavior typically are more easily overwhelmed by stressors and have difficulty communicating their emotions. As such, these individuals turn to mind-altering substances as a means to self-medicate.
While drugs and alcohol may provide temporary mental relief, they ultimately make things worse–and not because of the social or financial ramifications substance abuse can bring about. Drugs interfere with serotonin and dopamine production, the same neurotransmitters that regulate mood. This interference results in individuals becoming even more sensitive to stressful situations and more prone to stress. The same mechanism simultaneously makes individuals more susceptible to becoming addicted to a substance in the first place, contributing to this harmful cycle on two fronts.
How Stress Affects Key Neurotransmitters
Another major contributing factor of how stress can influence addiction and relapse is highlighted in the relationship between stress and psychiatric disorders. The complex relationship between drugs and mental illness is widely recognized. It often leads to a negative feedback loop which is why specialized treatment programs like dual diagnosis are necessary and addiction in the face of mental illness can not be treated in isolation.
So where does stress come into the equation? Many of the same neurological imbalances that can be found in individuals with PTSD, anxiety disorders, and other types of mood disorders are similar to the neurological effects of stress. Cortisol, a stress hormone, has been shown to inhibit serotonin receptors, an important hormone involved with mood stabilization, feelings of happiness, and well-being; and lower dopamine production, a vital neurotransmitter involved with the reward center of the brain and impulse control. A shortage of either of these important chemicals is largely attributed as the primary culprit behind a variety of mental illnesses.
These findings are corroborated by several studies that found individuals with depression usually have above-average levels of cortisol in their system. Further, individuals with chronic stress are prone to developing depression. For an individual with a mental illness who already uses drugs, the additional presence of stress can be disastrous to their brain chemistry and push them even further over the edge, causing them to reach for instant gratification regardless of the negative consequences that may follow.
Stress and Addiction is A Dangerous Cocktail
The ways that stress can influence addiction relapse are twofold. First, it can disrupt important neurotransmitters that would otherwise allow you to have a healthy stress response. Second, it blocks serotonin intake, which can cause you to feel bad and overwhelmed to the point that you need drugs to cope. Finally, it also reduces dopamine levels which can strengthen one’s feeling that they “need” a drug and lead to reduced impulse control–a key factor in preventing addiction relapse.
However, that’s not to say that stress itself is the enemy. Stress is a normal and natural part of being human. What’s important is learning how to effectively manage stress in a healthy manner. No matter who you are, what you do, or where you come from, you will be faced with stressful situations in your life. Being able to overcome addiction requires adopting new ways of dealing with those moments which then minimizes the temptation to relapse. But such a major rewiring of behavior isn’t something you can do on your own. An addiction treatment counselor can help you identify the particular triggers that cause you to turn to drug use and pinpoint the behavior that needs fixing.