The world is full of stressors. They creep into our world a little at a time, slowly leaking into our mental, physical, and spiritual space. Stress is one precursor to addiction. Childhood trauma is a stressor, parents with addiction can be stressors, and life itself on a daily basis carries stressors as well. The human response to stress is hormonal as well as physical and behavioral.
Too much stress raises cortisol, stresses the adrenals, and creates an unhealthy relationship between the person and their environment. Learn more about why stress occurs, how it relates to addiction, and what people can do to mitigate the stressors in their lives.
Stress is defined as activities that create a response in the body that requires a shift or change. The body and mind first experience stress, which sets off alarm bells. This is called the ‘fight or flight’ response. Resistance to the stressor continues as the body works to create a response and, finally, exhaustion is when the stressor is not resolved and the situations continue. The system breaks down and the person begins to experience responses such as diseases, ailments, and illnesses related to the stressors. Prolonged periods of stress make people more vulnerable to developing heart disease, kidney issues, ulcers, or mental health issues like depression and anxiety. One other challenge is also addiction as a response to the stress.
Stress and Substance Use
Substance use disorder begins, and continues, for different reasons. Generally, substances are harmful because they don’t support or help the body and mind deal appropriately with stress. It causes more stress responses in the body. The use of prescription medication without a prescription can cause lots of health issues. Stress is a risk factor with a higher vulnerability to a substance use disorder. Attempts to avoid substance use in light of stress depend on a person’s vulnerability, genetic predisposition, or the ability to deal with it in other ways. Without the right tools or resources, people often turn to substances because they are not sure how else to cope. Once addiction takes hold, they feel helpless to quit and are ashamed about reaching out for help. Some key factors to think about when it comes to stress and substance use:
- Adolescents who experience negative experiences at home early on may have higher levels of stress that may lead to substance use disorders and mental health issues. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are a number of factors that can leave children at high risk, with adolescents using the same markers to determine if they are more susceptible to substance use disorder
- Trauma and maltreatment in childhood can lead to increased rates of substance use and mental health issues later in life
- Stressful events in a person’s lifetime, or compounding factors and generational trauma, may be passed down on a cellular level, as well as through environmental circumstances
Not all individuals who experience stress develop challenges but it may develop into substance use disorder. There are key factors that play a role in how resilient someone is to these factors, which may make a difference in supporting their healing in recovery.
Complexities of Addiction
Addiction is way more complex than compounding stress, life factors, or ACEs. In fact, research suggests substance use is only one way people escape from trauma and challenges in life. They may experience the negative consequences of friend loss, family issues, and financial troubles but never turn to substances. Some people try it once as a means of alleviating chronic pain (prescription drugs) and find they become addicted to how it makes them feel, even if that was not the first reason for using them. Addiction hijacks the brain and body to want more of a substance. No matter what a person does, they have to fight every step of the way to quit using drugs, drinking, or doing substances in lieu of other means to navigate stress in life. Being preoccupied with finding substances, using them, and maintaining the habit is also stressful for a person. Until they detox and go through rehab, they are less likely to stay clean and sober than someone who seeks treatment. Treatment helps someone deal with underlying issues, the layers of their life stressors, and focus on supporting their healing going forward.
Someone with addiction who enters treatment may avoid some of the issues associated with substance use disorder. It is helpful to address stressors that lead up to it, dual diagnosis challenges of mental health issues, and how to cope better with life. The stress of facing withdrawal can be alleviated by doing different things on a regular basis. It means knowing when, how, and why triggers happen and having a treatment plan that supports growth in recovery. Some things to keep in mind are how long the person was addicted, what substances and mental health issues exist, and what their treatment goals may be. Focusing on their individual needs can be more helpful to them than trying a one-size-fits-all approach. With the right treatment program, a person can find healing in recovery. It means simply finding support in the right environment to create space for healing.
Although stress and substance use may be related, there are myriad factors involved. It is better to deal with all of them in a healthy setting in rehab where someone can face the various things they need to face and may find some help dealing with them one at a time. In this way, they can work through a healing step by step without getting overwhelmed. Recovery is about little steps towards a great goal on the journey, not worrying about reaching a final destination as they grow along the way.