The Link Between Anxiety and Addiction: What’s the Connection?

Woman struggling with anxiety and addiction and trying to cope.
Woman struggling with anxiety and addiction and trying to cope.

The Link Between Anxiety and Addiction: What’s the Connection?

Anxiety is the most common mental disorder in the U.S. with more than 40 million adults or 18 percent of the population reporting that they are affected by it on a regular basis [1]. Anxiety causes those who suffer from it to experience a state of constant fear and worry, often about insignificant things, and can manifest in many physical symptoms as well. Unfortunately, it is common for people with anxiety disorders to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, which can lead to a substance use disorder (SUD). Although anxiety disorders and SUD may exist separately for some, in many cases addiction and anxiety can be co-occurring problems.

It is often difficult to determine whether an anxiety disorder has led to an addiction, or an existing addiction has caused someone to develop an anxiety disorder as a result [2]. This is why both issues need to be fully addressed by medical professionals in a safe, understanding, and positive environment that treatment facilities such as Briarwood Detox Center can provide.

Anxiety in Everyday Life vs. Anxiety Disorders

Occasional anxiety is a normal part of everyday life, and many people may find themselves worrying about things such as health, money, or family problems. However, anxiety disorders involve more than temporary worry or fear. For people with an anxiety disorder, the anxiety may become constant or worsen over time. The symptoms can also become debilitating to the extent that they interfere with daily activities such as job performance, schoolwork, or relationships, and sufferers may choose to turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with their symptoms.

Short-term anxiety may be caused by many issues including, but not limited to, the following:

  • Emotional trauma
  • Financial concerns
  • Stress caused by a chronic or serious medical condition
  • Grief or loss
  • A major event or performance
  • As a side effect of certain medications

Alcohol consumption and the use of stimulant drugs such as cocaine or methamphetamine may also result in a person developing an anxiety disorder due to the drugs’ effect on the body.

Related post: Self-Medicating to Deal With Stress | Nova Recovery Center in Austin, TX

5 Major Types of Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders that are more severe and may require more intensive treatment are often linked with drug and alcohol abuse and have been grouped into five major types [3]:

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

GAD affects an estimated 5.7% of U.S. adults during some point in their lives and is characterized by feelings of chronic anxiety, exaggerated worry, tension, and restlessness, even when there is little or nothing to provoke it, that occurs more days than not for at least 6 months. Those who suffer from GAD likely understand that their anxiety is more intense than a situation calls for, but they are still unable to stop their unfounded concerns [4].

Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia)

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 12.1% of U.S. adults will be affected by Social Anxiety Disorder at some time in their lives. The disorder can make sufferers feel intensely self-conscious while performing otherwise normal, everyday tasks such as attending school or shopping for groceries and may also be accompanied by intense feelings of being watched or judged by others [5].

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD is a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, traumatic, or life-threatening event. According to the National Center for PTSD, 7 to 8 out of every 100 people will experience PTSD at some point in their lives, and anyone can develop PTSD at any age. This includes war veterans, children, and people who have been through a physical or sexual assault, abuse, accident, disaster, or other serious events. The disorder is characterized by intense feelings of fear or danger even when no threat is present [6].

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

OCD is a common, long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, repetitive thoughts, urges, or mental images (obsessions) and/or behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over, often in an attempt to ward off feelings of distress. Someone who is suffering from OCD may realize that their behaviors don’t make sense to those around them, but are unable to stop their recurring thoughts and actions without outside help [7].

Panic Disorder

Panic Disorder occurs when someone experiences intense episodes of fear, also known as panic attacks, without an obvious trigger. Not everyone who experiences a panic attack will develop panic disorder; however, many people with panic disorder worry about the possibility of having another attack and may significantly change their life in an attempt to avoid it. Panic attacks vary widely from person to person and may occur as frequently as several times a day or as rarely as a few times a year [8].

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimates that individuals with anxiety and its related disorders are twice as likely as the rest of the general population to suffer from SUD. Those affected may use drugs or alcohol in an effort to cope with their anxiety in the hope that it will help them relax or put their mind at ease [9].

This false sense of security is short-lived, however, as attempts to self-medicate often backfire by intensifying both the physical and psychological effects of anxiety. Unfortunately, prolonged substance abuse damages the brain and body mechanisms that help relieve the symptoms of anxiety, and as a result, anxiety can actually increase over time. This reinforces the need for the addicted person to use more of these substances in order to function normally. The result is an ongoing cycle of substance abuse that can lead to chemical dependency and addiction [10].

Related post: 8 Signs You Need Drug Detox

There is Help for Your Addiction

Treating only a substance abuse disorder without also treating either the underlying anxiety issues or the anxiety that may develop due to the addiction can be a counterproductive endeavor. If the underlying cause of anxiety is allowed to remain, the addict’s reason to use may remain as well, and these motivations may drive the individual to relapse back into active addiction.

Treatments such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) along with proper medication have been found to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and co-occurring addictions. It is also important to realize that in order for a person to overcome a substance abuse problem they must understand that it is not the answer to the underlying anxiety issues and to get professional help for the problem before it consumes them.

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