Examining The Link Between Anxiety And Addiction

Examining The Link Between Anxiety And Addiction

May 21st, 2018

Substance use disorder (SUD) is often linked to a diverse range of underlying mental health issues, one of the most common of which is anxiety. When people experience these two mental health issues simultaneously, it can be difficult to determine which caused the other (or if they’re even related) without extensive behavioral therapy. However,It is critical that they are treated separately for the best outcomes. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports particularly high rates of anxiety among those who struggle with substance abuse, including marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and other opioids. While there is a broad relationship between addiction and anxiety, each sufferer’s journey is different.

What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a mental disorder characterized by persistent fear, uneasiness, and worrying for prolonged periods that impacts one’s physical health and quality of life. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that anxiety is the most common mental disorder in the United States and currently affects over forty million Americans. Anxiety develops through a variety of factors, including shifts in brain chemistry, traumatic experiences, lifestyle issues, and more. There are many different types of anxiety, some of the most common of which include:

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder
  • Panic Disorder
  • Social Anxiety Disorder
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Specific Phobias
  • Each type of anxiety disorder has its own specific clinical protocol for diagnosis.

How are Substance Abuse and Anxiety Linked?

Anxiety and addiction can intertwine in multiple ways. It’s common for those who battle anxiety, whether it’s through acute trauma, physiology, constant stress, or any other factor, to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Trauma-induced anxiety can be a very powerful catalyst for addiction, particularly in cases where the trauma occurred at a young age. The Adverse Childhood Experience Study established an undeniable link between childhood trauma and multiple forms of addiction.
A more recent study of children who lived or went to school near Ground Zero found that the greater the number of trauma-inducing factors they experienced, the more likely the kids were to increase their use of alcohol and other drugs. It’s not uncommon for someone to dull the rigors of life with a pill, a drink, or even a joint, particularly if it helps them function in the short-term. Eventually, however, these “solutions” become untenable and lose their effect.

Another way addiction and anxiety are linked is through the abuse of anxiety drugs like Valium®, Klonopin®, and Xanax®, all of which are known as benzodiazepines. While the opioid addiction crisis has dominated the headlines, there is a pervasive epidemic of benzodiazepine addiction as well. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that benzo-related overdose deaths have increased 430 percent over the past fifteen years. Anxiety sufferers who take these drugs to regulate brain chemistry, reduce their anxiety, and function in their everyday lives often build a tolerance very quickly, forcing them to take more and more of the medication to achieve the same initial effects. Benzos depress the central nervous system and can seriously slow heart rate and breathing to the point of cessation. It’s crucial that all benzo users have their intake monitored by an experienced and qualified medical professional.

Signs of Anxiety-Related Addiction

While each patient’s exact behavioral patterns may be different, there are several common behaviors of both anxiety and addiction of which loved ones of those at risk should be mindful:

  • Signs of Anxiety
  • Sudden and overwhelming fear
  • Heart palpitations
  • Excessive perspiration
  • Tremors and shaking
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chronic chest pain
  • Persistent nausea and dizziness
  • Detachment, disinterest, and fear of the world
  • Signs of Addiction Symptoms
  • Physical and psychological withdrawal
  • Lying about drug and alcohol use
  • Constant fixation on drugs or alcohol
  • Decline in work or school performance
  • Incarceration and other legal troubles
  • Financial struggle due to substance use
  • Sudden extreme behavioral changes
  • Sudden extreme changes in physical appearance

Just as each drug will yield its own physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms, each type of anxiety will trigger different behavioral signs that may manifest in different types of situations. Some may be triggered by associative trauma, others may be prolonged and more general. It’s important that loved ones of those suffering from anxiety or potential addiction monitor behavior to assess the risk of self-harm or decline in health.

Treating Anxiety-Related Addiction

Co-occurring addiction and anxiety should be treated using the dual-diagnosis model. This model treats both conditions independently while exploring how the two are related. Patients work with their treatment specialists to address the root causes of their anxiety and how they have triggered and sustained their substance abuse. It’s important for patients to undergo detox and withdrawal management prior to or during their behavioral therapy. Professional detox will help mitigate withdrawal symptoms and provide intervention in the case of a medical emergency.

Once an individual completes a treatment program, whether it’s inpatient, outpatient, intensive outpatient, or whatever their care needs require, it is recommended that they continue long-term psychotherapy with a professional who specializes in co-occurring disorders, and that they continue to attend 12-Step meetings. Treatment facilities should develop customized aftercare plans that address each patient’s long-term care needs and lifestyle.

Get Help Now

Navigating the relationship between anxiety and addiction can be a long and difficult process; however, with quality treatment, a supportive group of loved ones, and a clear path to recovery, it is entirely possible. The recovery process starts with diagnosis and a clear treatment plan. A better tomorrow may be closer than you think.


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