July 7, 2022

The Relationship Between Stress and Drug or Alcohol Abuse

How Does Stress Relate to Drug or Alcohol Abuse?

Over the years, drugs and alcohol have become a common way for people to “escape” from life stress. Some may claim that they drink for fun or participate in party drugs to elevate their experience, but at the core of long-term drug addiction or alcohol abuse is using the substance as a coping method for stress. This has revealed a direct link between stress and addictive substance use.

So many individuals who experience the effects of drugs or drinking alcohol find the experience enjoyable because most substances affect the pleasure or reward brain region. This is where hormones like dopamine, serotonin, epinephrine, and norepinephrine are produced, and all of these produce euphoric feelings when the levels are increased. In times of stress, these hormone levels are low, making a person feel sad, anxious, or angry.

Our brain and body have natural ways of raising these levels to make ourselves feel better, but they are “hard,” requiring a certain amount of effort and time to work. Drugs and alcohol produce an immediately gratifying effect, sometimes within minutes of ingestion and with minimal effort on the user’s part aside from acquiring the substance and putting it into their body. This defines the relationship between stress and substance abuse. Individuals who experience this effect become vulnerable to addictions and can become long-term drug abusers.

These substances are not natural. While initial or first-time effects and experiences can feel very good, it is not often that the first experience can be repeated, and attempting to recreate the feeling puts users at risk of developing substance use disorders. Additionally, a significant amount of damage is done to the brain and the body with each use.

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How Substance Abuse Worsens the Feelings of Stress

In many ways, our brains function like a muscle, and you must “train” them to produce certain responses to specific stimuli. Many of these responses are taught to us at a young age, like learning to express your anger in a healthy manner instead of yelling or hitting, or in some cases, not being taught, so you know to express it in an unhealthy way. The same concept applies to our stress response. While sometimes difficult, it is entirely possible to train our brains to manage our response to stress without being flooded with stress hormones and overwhelming feelings of sadness, fear, despair, or anger.

These feelings happen when your brain either over or under-produced certain chemicals. For example, a healthy brain is constantly releasing some level of serotonin or dopamine, keeping us feeling neutral or calm, even if we are not distinctly happy. When we receive stimuli that make us sad, the stress causes these production centers to stop producing the “feel good” hormones, resulting in lowered mood and sadness.

Essentially, using drugs or drinking alcohol to cope with stress disrupts the standard response of these production centers. The brain mass-produces these chemicals when exposed to stressful stimuli, increasing stress. It becomes challenging to manage these emotions without resorting to methods of substance abuse. This can manifest into a chronic stress condition where the brain constantly struggles to produce “feel good” hormones.

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Should You Cut Out Drugs and Alcohol to Reduce Stress?

Drinking alcohol and abusing drugs are not effective ways of treating stress. In fact, studies have shown that even minimal drug or alcohol use without escalation to a full-blown addiction still significantly interferes with the brain’s ability to handle all levels of stress, and chronic drug use worsens anxiety. If you are feeling stressed, it is a good idea to discontinue any drug or alcohol use, even if you only drink socially. Improving your overall health has shown direct links to improving your mental health and helping you manage stress.

What Is the Best Drug to Treat Depression, Anxiety, and Stress?

Sometimes, repeated exposure to trauma, a history of childhood abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, or other environmental and genetic factors can influence how our brain functions and produces hormones. Even while doing all the “right” things and learning healthy ways to cope, the brain can still suffer from a chemical imbalance. Individuals who experience this can benefit from additional help in regulating their brains. The best option for this is through antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications, also called SSRIs and SNRIs.

If you feel this way, speak with your primary care doctor or psychologist about starting medication. Many of them are shallow doses and can significantly assist in managing stress. You may have heard of Celexa, Lexapro, Prozac, or Zoloft, as these are widely used daily antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications that have shown great success. Every person is different, though, and it may take some trial and error to find the medication you feel the best on.

Healthy Coping Skills for Dealing With Stress

With or without the help of antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication, learning and using healthy coping skills in stressful situations is still highly beneficial. You can develop various coping methods depending on how you feel at the time and what outcome you are hoping for. Many people have methods for stress management before they learn the term and start working on them—things like walking away to calm down when you are frustrated or going on a drive. Even actions like slamming your hand on a table or clenching your fists are instinctual coping skills, although maybe not the most healthy ones.

Treating stress with a coping skill is to find a way to deescalate a negative emotion healthily and safely so you don’t have to remain in a negative mood. Aside from the risk of developing an addiction from poor coping methods, long periods of stress can lead to more negativity towards yourself or those around you. Coping skills range from small, almost invisible things you can do at the moment to entire activities you do after an upsetting event so you can calm down and feel better. Coping skills also generally fall into two categories, those meant to distract and those that help you improve your mood.

If you are in public or in a situation where you can’t access other coping skills, having small ones to do can be helpful to keep you calm and help you feel better until you can access another coping skill. Taking deep breaths is one of the most common introductory calming tactics that people are taught, as well as slowly counting back from 10. These distract your mind and force you to focus on something else. You might roll your eyes, thinking that something so simple can’t work, but it has proven effective. Another one is looking around and identifying one object for each of the five senses. Something you can see, hear, taste, touch or feel, and smell. The process of thinking about this instead of what you are upset about distracts your brain enough to let go of initial feelings of distress. Some tangible coping skills include squeezing a stress ball or playing with a fidget toy. If possible, many people also find great relief in listening to music or watching a funny video. These two also serve as ways to improve your mood once you have been distracted from your stressor.

The next level of coping skills covers activities you can do that keep your mind off stress and improve your mood. Depending on the situation, these can be done at the moment of stress if you have access to the space or items you need, or they can be sought out and done a bit after the fact. You can also do these activities regularly to keep your mood up and participate in regular sessions of feeling calm. Physical activity has long been shown to reduce stress and improve mood as your body produces endorphins in response to the activity. Many physical activities are recreational and enjoyable for those reasons as well. Some examples of things you can do alone are completing a workout, running, swimming, biking, turning on your favorite music, and dancing. Many individuals also benefit from cleaning due to the physical aspect and the reward of completing a task and having a clean space afterward. There are also plenty of non-physical coping skills such as drawing or painting, spending time on a long-term project like fixing a car, journaling, singing, reading, meditation, and spending time with animals. For this second category of coping skills, where you aim to improve your mood, practically any safe activity you enjoy can be used as a coping skill. Cooking, knitting, building birdhouses, playing video games, watching a funny movie, making tiny hats for dogs, literally anything. The only criteria are to distract yourself from stressors or improve your mood without causing harm to yourself or others.

Please call us at (800) 426-1818 today to learn more about how stress relates to drug or alcohol abuse and where you can access the Los Angeles treatment programs needed to overcome addiction.

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