Stress can cause addiction, exacerbate it and increase the chances of relapse. Because of the integral role stress plays in addiction, it’s critical that any treatment plan for addiction includes stress management tools.
Whether you’re dealing with stress in your current life or are impacted by chronic stress in earlier life, alcohol and drug abuse can feel like an effective way to dull unpleasant feelings and boost your mood. Unfortunately, as stress management tools go, substance abuse doesn’t work well. It can result in addiction, in which the person looking for relief instead becomes reliant on alcohol or drugs in order to feel functional. In turn, they are likely to experience more stress, which is likely to make them turn to substance abuse. And on and on it goes.
In this blog post we take a look at the link between stress and drug and alcohol abuse, the warning signs of stress, healthy ways to cope with stress and the importance of stress management in addiction treatment.
The Link Between Stress and Substance Abuse
Research has long confirmed the significant association between stress and the motivation to abuse addictive substances. There is considerable evidence to support a link between psychosocial adversity, trauma and chronic distress and addiction vulnerability.
All that to say: experiencing high levels of stress can, in some people, result in substance abuse and addiction. In many cases, alcohol and drugs like tranquillizers, benzodiazepines, opiates and hallucinogens contain chemical compounds which alter the symptoms of stress. By taking these substances, stress symptoms may temporarily be replaced with anything from numbness to euphoria.
The problem is, that the stress remains. Unless the individual finds an alternative coping mechanism, chronic alcohol or drug abuse is a serious risk. It’s well documented in the literature that chronic stress is a risk factor for developing an addiction.
Physical and Psychological Warning Signs of Stress
Experiencing stress is unavoidable and your body’s reaction to stress is important, it’s there to keep you alert and avoid danger. However, when you experience stress frequently, without periods of relief, or if you experience it in response to events that don’t bother other people, and you don’t have any healthy coping mechanisms in place, it can be deeply unpleasant.
When we talk about stress, we’re usually talking about the physical and emotional response to experiencing pressure, tension or overwhelm. Some examples of stressful situations include:
- Relationship issues
- Losing a job
- Financial worries
- Chronic health problems
There are different kinds of stress too. Acute stress happens in response to something happening in the moment and is usually over quickly. For example, you might experience stress or anxiety before a job interview, but it stops shortly after leaving the office. Episodic acute stress is similar, in which you experience high-stress situations frequently, such as a stressful job. Then there is chronic stress, which is where you experience stress frequently, in response to normal everyday life.
Your autonomic nervous system has a built-in stress response, you might have heard people talk about the fight or flight response. It’s there to help the body deal with stressful events and it can result in all sorts of weird and wonderful changes to the body including altering your heart rate, speeding up your breath, increasing your peripheral vision, thickening your blood and reducing your perception of pain.
While all of that can be useful in a genuinely stressful, one-off situation, it can become a problem when you experience chronic stress. Frequent activation of this stress response can start to wear your body out and you may develop a range of symptoms including:
- Sleep issues
- High blood pressure
- Muscle tension
- Feeling sick, dizzy or fainting
- Digestive trouble
- Weakened immune system
- Changes to menstrual cycle
- Irritability, anger or impatience
- Sense of dread
- Mental health disorders like depression and anxiety
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Healthy Ways to Cope with Stress
We’ve established that stress has a big impact on addiction, including alcohol and drug abuse. So, it follows that developing a stress management toolkit will be key in beating addiction and remaining sober.
Stress is unavoidable in everyday life, so the challenge, then, isn’t removing the stress but developing strategies for coping. Instead of turning to substance abuse to handle the stress, here are some healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with life’s inevitable challenges.
Because of the strong link between stress and substance abuse and addiction, it’s imperative that treatment includes evidence-based strategies to help manage stress, which could include:
Extensive research agrees that exercising your body can improve the way it handles stress. There are many contributing factors to this. Exercise improves blood flow and your ability to use oxygen, both of which positively impact your brain. Physical activity also increases your production of ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters, like endorphins, responsible for the euphoric runner’s high phenomena.
You don’t have to become an ultra-runner or bodybuilder to experience the stress busting benefits of exercise though. Research has found even simply going on a 30 minute walk each day can lower stress and boost your overall mood.
Mindfulness and Meditation
A meta-analysis looking at the efficacy of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) found it was able to reduce stress levels while also lessening ruminative thinking and anxiety and increasing empathy and self-compassion.
Further research has shown that mindfulness-based interventions (MBI) can specifically help with the treatment of addiction by boosting natural reward cues (rather than addiction-related cues), increasing top-down cognitive control, enhancing positive emotions and expression and lessening both subjective and physiological stress perception.
Therapy can help you manage stress by equipping you with the tools to recognise past patterns of behaviours that led to addiction. Once you become self-aware in this way, it is then possible to choose a different response. This is a crucial step for not only managing your stress, but also avoiding an alcohol or drug abuse relapse.
At Castle Craig we offer a range of therapy formats and modalities. With 30 years of experience helping more than 10,000 patients with their addictions, our team of addiction experts will work with you to find the right therapy for you and your unique situation.
Peer support is invaluable when it comes to managing stress and avoiding addiction relapse. Groups can help by providing you with an invaluable sense of belonging, along with accountability, which together strengthen incentive and commitment, which in turn helps avoid a substance abuse relapse.
A peer support group can also reduce perceived stress levels. For some it could be realising that they aren’t grappling with the issue alone or for others it could be having a safe space to vent with people who get it.
Meeting Basic Needs
It sounds almost too simplistic, but when we are experiencing stress it’s not uncommon to forget to take care of basic needs like making sure you’re eating a nutritious diet, getting enough sleep and spending time outdoors. But research has found that when basic needs go unmet, we’re prone to stress and poorer health outcomes.
This isn’t an issue exclusive to those dealing with addiction, it applies to most of the population. But when it comes to managing addiction, meeting these basic needs become even more important as the failure to do so could result in a relapse. While meeting your basic needs won’t stop stress, it will give you the ability to better handle challenges.
Create Healthy Routines
In order to manage your stress, you’ll need to create processes and routines that support your new habits. Having a simple routine for the basic anchor points in your day helps to minimise stress and increase the chance that you’ll stick to them.
Your routine will depend on your life circumstances, but it could include a winddown routine at night to maximise the chance of getting at least seven hours sleep. You might stop using screens, take a warm bath or read in bed for a while. Likewise, to support a balanced approach to food you might dedicate one afternoon a week to batch cooking, to ensure eating healthily is as easy as possible.
Stress Management in Addiction Treatment
Integrating stress management techniques is a holistic approach to addiction treatment which aims to equip you with real solutions for one of the biggest factors in developing addiction and relapsing.
Someone who can identify when they are experiencing stress and use healthy tools to manage that stress, rather than turning to substance abuse, has a better chance of staying in recovery and avoiding relapse in the future.
Here at Castle Craig, we have a variety of different stress management therapies on offer. Which ones you choose to undertake will come down to your individual plan and preferences.
Our one-to-one therapy sessions underpin the rebab treatment here at Castle Craig.
Through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET) and Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), our therapists help explore the issues contributing to your addiction in a safe space. CBT is particularly useful for stress management, as you will learn how to identify stress, destructive thoughts and typical behavioural patterns.
Group therapy increases self-awareness through the shared experiences of peers. During this time, you can discuss potential future stressful situations and work through how to avoid relapsing with the help of other group members.
As well as traditional therapy, patients here have access to a range of complementary and holistic therapies which can be used to manage stress. Mindfulness Meditation and Relaxation Therapy, which focuses on living in the present moment, can help manage stress and reduce the risk of relapse.
Acupuncture, which is approved by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, works by stimulating endorphins which boost the immune system and reduce pain, stress and anxiety. Our own research showed 67% of patients felt calmer after Aromatherapy, with 20-25% saying they felt it helped relieve stress and tension. Stress can cause sleep issues and even insomnia, and our Indian Head Massage service helps to relieve stress and promote relaxation, allowing patients to better rest.
Given the undeniable, prominent role that stress plays in addiction and relapse, it’s vital you pick a rehabilitation treatment centre that offers stress management tools. Not only will it set you up for success and lessen the likelihood of relapse, but learning how to effectively manage stress will make life feel less overwhelming and much more enjoyable.
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- Narvaez, D., Noble, R. (2018). The Notion of Basic Needs. In: Narvaez, D. (eds) Basic Needs, Wellbeing and Morality. Palgrave Pivot, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-97734-8_1