How Stress Impacts Substance Use Disorders

Dr. Manish Mishra, MBBS

Medically Reviewed By: Manish Mishra, MBBS

on October 13, 2022

While some stress is needed to survive, chronic stress causes damage to someone’s overall well-being. Indulging in substances is one way people deal with life’s stressors. 

Alcohol abuse is one of the most common forms of drug addiction. Others may use opioids, abuse, cocaine, and other substances to lower levels of stress. 

But using substances to handle the effects of stress has many risk factors. Below we’ll explore how stress impacts the development of substance use disorders.  

How Is Stress Generated?

Stress generates when we are in a situation we feel we have no control over. The prefrontal part of our brain regulates stress and tells the rest of the body how to react. 

This neurobiological reaction is called the “fight or flight” response. The brain sends a message to the nervous system when stress is detected. 

Some different types of stress are:

  • Acute stress: This form of stress usually lasts for a short period, such as a couple of days or a week. It may occur after a particularly stressful event. 
  • Chronic stress: This stress type typically describes long-form stress. People with chronic stress may have demanding jobs or are constantly in conflict with their surroundings. 

Every day, people go through life events that can create stress. They may find themselves in stressful situations that make them feel defenseless. 

Some contributors to stress are:

  • the passing of someone close to you 
  • occupational demands
  • lack of time management
  • verbal, physical, or sexual abuse 
  • sexual frustration 
  • friends and family experiencing hard times 
  • financial difficulties 
  • loneliness or lack of privacy
  • relationship issues with a partner or children 
  • experiencing turbulent situations as a child or young adult
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) 

What Does Stress Affect?

The overabundance of stress has several effects on someone’s brain, body, and emotional health. 

Even if it’s not a mental health disorder, stress is an all-encompassing feeling that leads to many other issues. 

Mental Health 

Stress begins in the brain and spreads to other parts of the body. It can affect someone’s mental state. 

Some mental health effects of stress are:

Physical Health 

Physical health can also be affected as a result of too much stress. Some of these issues can be long-lasting. 

Some physical health effects of stress are:

  • weight gain or loss
  • fatigue
  • formation of rashes or acne on the skin (alcohol abuse can lead to drinker’s nose, a skin condition characterized by a red, bulbous nose)
  • irritable bowel movements 
  • high cholesterol
  • headaches, migraines, and sensitivity to light or touch
  • erectile dysfunction
  • trouble sleeping
  • a rise in blood pressure 

Emotional Health 

Experiencing stress may lead a person to act out against loved ones and co-workers. It can also make someone feel on edge or lethargic. 

Some emotional health effects of stress are:

  • lack of attention to surroundings  
  • aggressive, violent, or erratic behavior 
  • hopelessness 
  • separating yourself from family, partners, and friends
  • inability to enjoy hobbies or activities
  • feeling unmotivated to keep up with physical exercise 

People use different coping mechanisms to manage stress. Some may try to find healthy outlets, but many use drug abuse to raise dopamine levels in the brain. 

Read on to learn how stress can lead to drug abuse and alcohol addiction.  

Does Stress Lead To Addiction?

One of the leading factors of addiction is stress. People who experience high levels of stress, especially in early childhood, are prone to develop substance use disorders. 

Stress leads to anxiety, depression, and many other unwanted feelings, such as those listed above.

Instead of confronting these feelings or seeking healthy outlets such as addiction therapy, a person might turn to substances to cope with stress.

Some describe this type of using or drinking as “self-medication.” Self-medicating with alcohol or drugs can create a physical and psychological need for substances.  

Drugs have many temporary effects on the body and brain, including:

  • feelings of euphoria and confidence
  • relief from physical pain and worry
  • enlightenment and a sense of clarity

While stress may be relieved for a few minutes or hours, drug effects wear off, and the deeper problems remain. 

Some may continue to abuse drugs to avoid stress. The short- and long-term implications of drug use may ultimately add stress. 

Some of the long-term dangers of drug addiction are:

  • health issues, including cardiovascular, brain, muscle, and skin damage
  • mental health problems, such as paranoia, hallucinations, insomnia, and trouble making decisions 
  • secrecy, lying, stealing, and isolation
  • experiencing withdrawal symptoms, such as cravings
  • work performance issues, financial problems, and relationship trouble

Stress hormones may rise as a result of the side effects of drug abuse. The brain becomes accustomed to the feeling drugs induce, creating a cycle of substance use. 

When someone decides to get sober, stress can still play an active role in recovery and the possibility of relapse. Read on to learn more. 

Can Stress Lead To A Relapse?

Recovering from drug addiction at any stage of life is difficult. Just like other mental health disorders, substance abuse typically requires long-form treatment. 

Deciding to enter an addiction treatment center or start therapy can be nerve-wracking for some. 

Stress from new situations or recognizing feelings in sobriety that were once bogged down with substances can cause a relapse. 

Other times, the physical symptoms of withdrawal are too strong, and people use to relieve themselves of discomfort. 

Withdrawal Symptoms 

The period between the last dose of a substance and when drug or alcohol withdrawal symptoms begin is crucial. 

Physical symptoms can involve flu-like symptoms and extreme drug cravings. There is a high volume of stress during the detoxification process, increasing the risk of relapse. 

The best way to deal with physical and mental withdrawal symptoms is medical detox. Detox centers provide a drug-free and nurturing environment for the withdrawal process. 

Everyday Stress 

Entering a treatment center, such as an inpatient residential program, can provide people the time, tools, and support to attain physical sobriety and start a drug-free life. 

However, staying sober after rehab isn’t easy. Returning to normalcy after drug addiction and learning to manage the everyday stressors of life can be difficult. 

Finding employment, making up for lost time away from family, and working through new coping methods can cause stress. Some find comfort in old behaviors and relapse. 

But this doesn’t mean failure. Relapse is part of many people’s journey. Thankfully, there are healthy stress management tools.

Tips For Managing Stress Without Using Or Drinking 

There are many practical ways to deal with stress and prevent a relapse. Some of these are free, low-cost, and all-encompassing to the mind, body, and spirit. 

Some ways to deal with stress in recovery are:

  • Reach out to family, loved ones, or trusted friends for connection, understanding, and honesty. Twelve-step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous can offer companionship and guidance. 
  • Professional help, in the form of cognitive behavioral therapy and group therapy, can offer healthier ways to deal with stress and help you recognize when stress may arise.
  • Practice mindfulness, such as meditation, yoga, breathwork, or Reiki. These activities can help you relieve stress and find connections between the mind and body. 
  • Go on long walks, runs, hikes, and other physical activities to release endorphins in the body, leading to a better mood.
  • Eat healthy foods, such as fish, vegetables, and whole grain bread. (Learn more about foods to eat while detoxing from alcohol.)
  • Participate in art, music, or other holistic therapeutic approaches 

Addiction Treatment In Massachusetts 

There are treatment centers in New England that can help you handle stress and recovery from a substance use disorder.

At Bedrock Recovery Center, we have many drug addiction therapies, such as motivational interviewing, dialectical behavior therapy, and medication-assisted treatment

Reach out today to learn more about our facility.

  1. American Psychiatric Association — What Is A Substance Use Disorder?
  2. Centers For Disease Control And Prevention — Mental Health, Substance Use, And Suicidal Ideation During The Covid-19 Pandemic
  3. National Library Of Medicine — Chronic Stress, Drug Use, And Vulnerability To Addiction

Written by Bedrock Recovery Center Editorial Team

© 2024 Bedrock Recovery Center | All Rights Reserved

* This page does not provide medical advice.

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