Anxiety and addiction

We all experience anxiety in certain situations, such as before an important job interview or preparing for a first date. This type of anxiety is a completely normal part of the human experience. Anxiety disorders, however, are a different matter entirely, severely impacting a person’s health, happiness and overall quality of life. One of the most challenging aspects of anxiety disorders is their frequent co-occurrence with addiction. This dual diagnosis creates a complex and debilitating cycle which can feel inescapable. However, with proper knowledge, treatment and support, it is possible to regain control and build a happier and healthier life.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety, in its most basic form, is a natural reaction to stress. In the face of threats, anxiety triggers the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response, heightening our senses and readiness for action. It is an emotion that has played a crucial role in human survival, alerting us to dangers and preparing us for challenges.

However, it’s crucial to distinguish between normal anxiety and anxiety disorders. Normal anxiety is typically short-lived and connected to specific situations or stressors. It can manifest as nervousness before an important event or worry over a significant life change, but it subsides once the situation is resolved or the stressor is removed.

In contrast, anxiety disorders are marked by persistent, excessive worry that does not go away, even in the absence of a stressor. These disorders can take various forms, including:

  • Generalised anxiety disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Specific phobias

They are characterised by symptoms that are more intense, frequent and enduring than normal anxiety. These symptoms can significantly interfere with daily activities and relationships and can enormously impact your overall quality of life.

What are common anxiety symptoms and signs?

There is a wide array of anxiety symptoms – both psychological and physical – that people experience. Recognising these signs of anxiety disorders is one of the first ways you can identify a serious issue in yourself or a loved one. Common anxiety symptoms include:

  • Persistent worry: This means excessive, ongoing worry that is difficult to control and is often far more severe than the situation warrants.
  • Physical symptoms: These often include rapid heartbeat, sweating, trembling, dizziness, fatigue and insomnia.
  • Cognitive impairments: Anxiety can completely overwhelm your thought processes, resulting in concentration issues, racing thoughts or being easily startled.
  • Emotional distress: This may manifest as apprehension or dread, anticipating the worst possible scenario, restlessness and extreme irritability.
  • Behavioural changes: Avoidance of anxiety-provoking situations, social withdrawal or reliance on substances to cope.
  • These anxiety symptoms can impact various aspects of normal life, including work performance, academic achievement and personal relationships, turning ordinary tasks and interactions into overwhelming challenges. If you notice these signs of anxiety disorders in yourself or someone you know, you should consider seeking professional help.

    How does dual diagnosis anxiety and addiction develop?

    The development of a dual diagnosis of anxiety and addiction usually develops in stages, with each deepening the impacts of the co-occurring conditions. While everyone’s path is slightly different, this process usually looks something like this:

    1. Initial anxiety disorder

    Dual diagnosis often starts with an underlying anxiety disorder, which may be undiagnosed or untreated. The individual experiences symptoms like excessive worry, restlessness or panic attacks, significantly impacting their daily life.

    2. Substance use as a coping method

    In an attempt to manage these overwhelming anxiety symptoms, the individual turns to alcohol, drugs or other addictive behaviours. Initially, these substances may seem to offer relief, reducing anxiety symptoms or helping the individual to feel more at ease in social situations.

    3. Growing tolerance and dependency

    Over time, the body develops tolerance, requiring more substance to achieve the same effect. This escalation can quickly lead to physical and psychological dependency, where the person needs the substance or behaviour to function at all.

    4. Worsening anxiety symptoms

    Once dependency is established, any reduction or cessation of addictive substances or behaviours can lead to an intensification of anxiety. This can lead to increased substance use in a mistaken attempt to manage these heightened symptoms, further fueling the cycle.

    5. A destructive cycle

    This cycle can lead to significant health issues, strained relationships, financial problems and a decline in overall quality of life. The individual may feel trapped, with both anxiety and addiction feeding into each other, making it challenging to break free without professional help.

    What forms do dual diagnosis addiction and anxiety take?

    Different forms of anxiety disorders can pair with various types of addiction, creating unique challenges in each case. Understanding these specific manifestations is vital in providing targeted treatment. Some of the most common forms we see at UKAT include:

    Social anxiety and addiction

    Social anxiety disorder, characterised by an intense fear of social situations and a worry about being judged or embarrassed, can lead individuals to substances as a coping mechanism. However, this can lead to a reliance on substances every time you need to take part in a social event, eventually resulting in addiction.

    Anxiety and alcohol addiction

    Alcohol is a common substance used to self-medicate for anxiety disorders due to its initial calming effects. While this may work initially, alcohol use can exacerbate anxiety symptoms over time and lead to dependence, creating a cycle where more alcohol is needed to relieve the increasing anxiety symptoms.

    Anxiety and drug addiction

    Individuals with anxiety may also turn to drugs (prescription or illicit) to relieve their symptoms. This can range from the use of cannabis to prescription medications like benzodiazepines, often prescribed for anxiety but themselves highly addictive. The misuse of these drugs can lead to addiction, compounding the anxiety they were meant to alleviate.

    Anxiety and porn addiction

    Anxiety can drive some individuals towards compulsive behaviours like porn addiction, particularly if social addiction is preventing them from making real-world connections. This form of addiction often serves as an escape mechanism from anxiety symptoms, but as with other addictions, it only provides temporary relief and ultimately increases anxiety levels.

    How are anxiety and addiction treated?

    The presence of an anxiety disorder can significantly affect the course of addiction treatment. Anxiety disorders can increase the difficulty of withdrawal, intensify cravings and make it challenging to engage fully in the treatment process. The coping strategies and skills needed to manage anxiety are also often underdeveloped in individuals with dual diagnosis, requiring a more specialised and comprehensive approach to treatment.

    UKAT recognises these challenges, and so our rehab centres provide comprehensive addiction rehab treatment while also helping clients manage anxiety symptoms. Our new UKAT London Clinic can go further and offer treatment for anxiety disorders themselves and dual diagnosis of anxiety and addiction.

    Some of our proven therapy and treatment approaches include:

    One-to-one therapy
    In these personalised therapy sessions, you will have a safe space to delve into the underlying causes of your anxiety and addiction. You will develop coping strategies and work through individual challenges, guided by an empathetic therapist.
    Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT)
    CBT is particularly effective for you if you are dealing with both anxiety disorders and addiction. It will help you identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviours, teaching you to manage the symptoms of both conditions more effectively.
    Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT)
    If you experience intense emotional responses and impulsive behaviours, DBT can be incredibly beneficial. DBT blends CBT techniques with mindfulness practices, aiding you in regulating emotions and improving stress management.
    Group therapy
    In group sessions, you will find support and gain perspective from peers who are facing their own mental health and addiction challenges. This fosters a sense of community and shared understanding, which can be crucial in recovery.
    Meditation and mindfulness
    These practices can be instrumental in managing your anxiety. They foster calm and present-moment awareness, reducing stress and promoting relaxation during every stage of addiction recovery.
    Trauma-based therapy
    If your anxiety and addiction stem from traumatic experiences, trauma-based therapy is critical for addressing these deep-rooted issues. It is about healing from the past to improve your present and future.
    Yoga therapy
    Yoga therapy combines physical postures, breathing exercises and meditation to improve mental health. It offers a holistic approach to managing your anxiety and addiction, which can be invaluable both during and after rehab.
    Aftercare is vital to your treatment, providing ongoing support after you leave rehab. At UKAT, this involves weekly group therapy sessions, which will help you maintain your sobriety, manage your anxiety and prevent relapse.

    Begin your journey to recovery and healing

    Embarking on recovery from a dual diagnosis of anxiety and addiction is a courageous step towards a healthier, more fulfilling life. At UKAT, we understand the complexities of these intertwined conditions, and our comprehensive treatment programmes offer the expertise, support and care necessary to navigate this journey. With a focus on individual needs and a commitment to holistic recovery, we are here to help you reclaim control and embark on a path to a happier and healthier future. Contact UKAT today to get started.

    Call us now for help


    Which anxiety medications can be addictive?
    Certain anxiety medications, particularly those in the benzodiazepine class, such as Xanax (alprazolam), Valium (diazepam) and Klonopin (clonazepam), have a high potential for addiction. These medications are effective for short-term relief of anxiety symptoms but can lead to dependency if used for a prolonged period or not used as prescribed. Their sedative effects, which bring about rapid relief, are what primarily contribute to their addictive nature. It is important to use these medications only under strict guidance from a healthcare professional.
    What are some alternatives if I become addicted to my anxiety medication?
    If you find yourself becoming dependent on your anxiety medication, it is crucial to consult with your healthcare provider for alternatives. Non-addictive medication options include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). Therapy approaches such as CBT, mindfulness practices and lifestyle modifications like regular exercise, a balanced diet and stress management techniques can also be effective in managing anxiety symptoms without the risk of addiction.