Stress and Addiction

“I’m so stressed!” We’ve all uttered these words at some point in our lives. Unfortunately, stress is an inevitable part of life, and we can do little to prevent it entirely. Instead of avoiding stressors, our focus should shift towards effective stress management. Regrettably, many individuals resort to substance abuse as a means of coping with stressful situations. This is a significant factor contributing to the prevalence of dual diagnoses involving both stress and addiction.

What is stress?

Stress is a physiological and psychological response to a perceived threat or demand, often referred to as a stressor. It triggers the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response, releasing stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. This natural and adaptive response is designed to help individuals cope with challenges and dangers.

Is all stress bad?

Not all stress is inherently bad. Stress is a natural and adaptive response that can be beneficial in certain situations. This type of stress, often called ‘eustress’, is a positive and motivating force that can enhance performance, increase focus and help individuals navigate challenges effectively. For example, the stress associated with meeting deadlines, pursuing personal goals, or facing a new and exciting challenge can be positive.

However, when stress becomes chronic, overwhelming, or exceeds an individual’s ability to cope, it can harm physical and mental well-being. This type of stress, often termed ‘distress’, is what is commonly associated with negative health outcomes.

What are the different types of distress?

There is a possibility of finding stress in most things in our daily lives, making the list endless. Regardless, we’ve put together some of the most common forms of stress or distress that many of us may unfortunately encounter at some point in our lives:

Acute stress
Acute stress is a short-term physiological and psychological response triggered by immediate threats or challenges. This type of stress activates the body’s “fight or flight” response, preparing it to react quickly. Potential causes include facing a sudden deadline, engaging in a confrontation, or experiencing a near-miss accident, all of which demand rapid attention and response.
Chronic stress
Chronic stress is a persistent state of heightened tension that extends over an extended period. It often results from ongoing life situations or circumstances, leading to a prolonged activation of the body’s stress response. Potential causes include enduring work-related pressures, financial difficulties, or navigating persistent family issues.
Episodic acute stress
Episodic acute stress involves experiencing frequent episodes of acute stress, creating a pattern where individuals seem to be in a perpetual state of crisis. People with this type of stress often find themselves overwhelmed by a multitude of daily challenges, leading to recurrent bouts of acute stress.
Chronic episodic stress
Chronic episodic stress occurs when individuals undergo prolonged and repeated episodes of acute stress, which can eventually contribute to long-term health problems. This type of stress is often associated with a hectic and chaotic lifestyle, where individuals face frequent stressors without sufficient opportunities for relaxation and recovery.
Physical stress
Physical stress results from the body’s response to physical demands, whether intense exercise, coping with illness, or experiencing a lack of sleep. These demands can strain the body’s physiological systems, leading to stress symptoms and potential health issues.
Psychological stress
Psychological stress originates from mental and emotional sources, encompassing challenges related to work, relationships, or academic responsibilities. The pressure associated with these mental demands can trigger stress responses, impacting cognitive function and overall well-being.
Emotional stress
Emotional stress is triggered by intense fear, anger, or grief. Dealing with the loss of a loved one or coping with a traumatic event can evoke profound emotional stress, influencing both mental and physical health.
Environmental stress
Environmental stress arises from external factors in the surroundings, including natural disasters, pollution, or noise pollution. These external stressors can significantly impact an individual’s well-being and contribute to heightened stress levels.
Social stress
Social stress emerges from interactions, relationships, or societal expectations. Potential causes include peer pressure, experiences of discrimination, or conflicts within social circles, all of which can create challenging social dynamics and contribute to stress.
Workplace stress
Workplace stress is associated with the demands and pressures of the work environment. High workload, job insecurity, and conflicts with colleagues are potential causes of stress, leading to symptoms that can affect both professional and personal well-being.

What are the signs and symptoms of stress?

When someone states they are stressed about something, most of us will surmise that they are worried or overworked. Stress can manifest in various ways, and its signs and symptoms can vary from person to person. Some common signs and symptoms of stress include:

Physical symptoms

  • Headaches or migraines
  • Muscle tension and aches
  • Fatigue or exhaustion
  • Sleep disturbances, such as insomnia
  • Digestive problems, like stomach aches
  • Changes in appetite, leading to overeating/undereating
  • Emotional symptoms

  • Anxiety or excessive worrying
  • Irritability
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Sadness or depression
  • Lack of focus
  • Restlessness
  • Behavioural symptoms

  • Unwanted changes in sleep patterns
  • Social withdrawal/isolation
  • Increased use of substances
  • Procrastination
  • Neglecting responsibilities
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Nail biting, pacing, or other nervous habits
  • Cognitive symptoms

  • Racing thoughts
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Forgetfulness
  • Negative self-talk
  • Lack of concentration
  • Does stress co-occur with addiction?

    Stress and addiction often co-occur due to complex interactions between biological, psychological and environmental factors. Several reasons contribute to this relationship:

    Coping mechanism
    Individuals may turn to substances as a way to cope with stress. Substance use can temporarily escape or relieve the emotional discomfort associated with stressors. For example, some with stressful jobs may also turn to a relaxing glass of wine after work. Although this is fine in small amounts, tolerance levels could increase, causing more alcohol to reach the same level of relaxation. This could promote the possibility of alcohol addiction or AUD, making this a potentially risky choice of a coping mechanism.
    Chronic stress can affect the brain’s reward system, particularly the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine. Drugs or alcohol can artificially stimulate this system, providing a sense of pleasure and relief from stress and contributing to the development of addictive behaviours. Chronic stress can induce changes in brain structure and function. These alterations can affect decision-making, impulse control and judgement, making individuals more susceptible to engaging in addictive behaviours.
    Genetic factors could play a role in both stress susceptibility and vulnerability to addiction, research suggests. Some individuals may have a genetic predisposition that makes them more susceptible to both stress symptoms and substance abuse.
    Environmental factors
    Stressful life events, trauma, or adverse childhood experiences can contribute to the development of both stress and addiction. Environmental factors, such as living in a bad neighbourhood or exposure to substance-using peers, can also increase the risk.
    Self-medication hypothesis
    Some individuals may use substances to self-medicate underlying mental health issues associated with stress, such as anxiety or depression. This can create a cycle where substance use becomes a maladaptive coping strategy.
    Withdrawal relief
    The withdrawal symptoms associated with substance dependence can be stressful in themselves. Individuals may use substances to alleviate these symptoms, further reinforcing the cycle of addiction.

    Treatment options for stress and addiction

    At UKAT, our primary focus is on addressing drug addiction at our rehab centre. While we do not specifically offer rehabilitation services for stress, the therapeutic services we offer at UKAT are designed to address both challenges concurrently. We offer the following therapies and services:

    Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT)

    DBT is a cornerstone of our therapeutic approach, proving effective in treating both addiction and stress. DBT’s emphasis on mindfulness, emotional regulation and interpersonal effectiveness translates well to individuals dealing with the dual challenges of addiction and stress. DBT equips our clients with essential tools for managing stressors by enhancing emotional resilience and coping mechanisms.

    Group and Individual Therapy

    Our comprehensive therapy programme includes both group and individual sessions. Group therapy encourages a sense of community, reducing feelings of isolation common in both addiction and stress. Sharing experiences and receiving support from peers can be immensely beneficial. Individual therapy provides a personalised approach, allowing clients to delve deeper into the root causes of their addiction and stress. Our skilled therapists work collaboratively with individuals to develop coping strategies tailored to their unique needs.

    Holistic therapies

    We recognise the interconnected nature of physical, mental and emotional well-being. Our holistic therapies, such as yoga, meditation and art therapy, aim to address the overall health of our clients. These practices not only contribute to the recovery process from addiction but also provide effective stress-relief techniques. By incorporating holistic therapies, we offer a well-rounded approach to treatment that supports individuals in their journey towards lasting recovery and stress reduction.

    Aftercare services

    Our commitment to long-term recovery extends beyond the initial rehabilitation phase. Aftercare services are crucial in supporting individuals as they transition back into their daily lives. This continuity of care is beneficial for managing both addiction and stress. By staying connected to a supportive network, individuals can navigate challenges more effectively, reducing the risk of relapse and minimising stressors that may arise during the recovery process.

    What are the next steps?

    Take the first step towards a healthier, balanced life. If stress and addiction are weighing you down, don’t face it alone. Reach out for support at UKAT today. Your well-being matters, and resources are ready to guide you on recovery. Start your journey today.

    Call us now for help

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