What is the Relationship Between Anxiety and Addiction?

woman with anxiety addicted to pills

If you or someone you care about has a drug or alcohol addiction, it's important to recognize the link between substance abuse and anxiety. Anxiety problems affect up to 20% of the US population each year. Even though anxiety disorders are highly treatable, only 36% of people who suffer from them seek care.

Unfortunately, people who struggle with their mental health are more likely to develop a substance or alcohol use disorder. What can we do to help those suffering from anxiety and addiction? Why is addiction so common among people with mental health conditions? Gaining a better understanding of the relationship between these two disorders can enable you to seek treatment for your drug or alcohol addiction or be more supportive of a loved one who is going through recovery.

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is one of the most prevalent mental health disorders in the United States, and its rate is increasing. The American Psychiatry Association's “Stress in America'' report for 2022 reveals a depressing reality: Americans are more stressed than they've ever been. CEO Arthur C. Evans Jr. says that “Americans have been doing their best to persevere over these past two tumultuous years, but these data suggest that we’re now reaching unprecedented levels of stress that will challenge our ability to cope.” He says the increase between the first survey’s results in 2007 and the 2022 report is “stunning.”

We must first define anxiety to understand its relationship to addiction fully.

Anxiety makes people feel tense, agitated, and worried. Anxiety is something that everyone goes through at times and is a natural part of life. Most of us can relate to situations that cause anxiety, such as being late for a job interview or nervous before a first date. The issue is eventually resolved, and the anxious feelings dissipate. Anxiety becomes an issue, however, when it interferes with your daily life and develops into an anxiety disorder.

A clinical anxiety disorder is much different than everyday nervousness. The National Institute of Mental Health defines generalized anxiety disorder as “excessive anxiety or worry, most days for at least 6 months, about a number of things such as personal health, work, social interactions, and everyday routine life circumstances. The fear and anxiety can cause significant problems in areas of their life, such as social interactions, school, and work.”

Different types of anxiety disorders may include:

  • Phobias or aversions. Commonly known phobias are agoraphobia (fear of small spaces) and arachnophobia (fear of spiders).
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, which can cause repetitive, unwanted thoughts or an obsessive need to compulsively complete rituals to ease discomfort
  • Panic Disorders may include physical symptoms like chest pain or dizziness
  • PTSD or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Although commonly associated with people who have served in the military, anyone can develop PTSD. This anxiety disorder arises from a traumatic event and may include frightening flashbacks or nightmares.
  • Social Anxiety Disorder may cause a person to experience severe panic or stress when confronted with meeting new people or being exposed to social situations
  • Separation anxiety disorder often occurs in children and is categorized as excessive stress due to separation from a person

So, where does anxiety originate? Anxiety has many causes, like traumatic life experiences, medical issues,  and chronic stress, and some anxiety susceptibility may be inherited. It's more likely that you'll develop an anxiety condition if you have a blood relative who has one, also. Anxiety does not indicate that you have done something wrong or have a personality flaw. Some people are naturally more anxious than others, and some develop anxiety as they grow older.

What Constitutes Addiction?

While some people's anxiety is triggered by heredity or traumatic events, some anxiety is caused purely by drug or alcohol abuse. This is known as a substance-induced anxiety disorder (SIAD). This form of anxiety disorder might be temporary, such as while you're detoxing from drugs, or it can be long-term if you use drugs and alcohol regularly.

How can you know if you have an addiction or need to reduce your consumption? According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a drug or alcohol habit becomes an addiction when someone continues to drink or use drugs “despite harmful consequences, and long-lasting changes in the brain….Addiction is the most severe form of a full spectrum of substance use disorders, and is a medical illness caused by repeated misuse of a substance or substances.”

Someone who is addicted to drugs or alcohol needs them to function. They are both physically and psychologically addicted. This person eventually becomes tolerant and needs more and more drugs or alcohol to achieve the same feeling they previously had with their original substance use. When they stop taking the drug or drinking, they experience withdrawal symptoms.

The language surrounding addiction has changed in recent years. Drug and alcohol treatment professionals now refer to addiction as a “substance user disorder.” In addition to updating how we refer to addiction, in 2013, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was updated to include new criteria for diagnosing a substance use disorder. This criteria now categorizes people into three sub-classifications: mild, moderate, and severe. Some people may be dependent on substances, but not to the level that it would be classified as an addiction. Unfortunately, even someone diagnosed with a mild substance use disorder may eventually develop a moderate or severe diagnosis.

The Relationship Between Anxiety and Addiction

Anxiety and addiction are intertwined in a destructive cycle. To cope with undiagnosed mental health conditions, many people turn to drugs and alcohol. In many cases, they are unaware that they have an anxiety disorder. This can lead to a vicious cycle in which the person requires drugs or alcohol to cope while unwittingly increasing their anxiety.

If you're nervous or anxious, drinking alcohol or taking a pill can temporarily “take the edge off.” This is because benzodiazepine medicines like Xanax and Ativan, as well as alcohol, affect the brain's neurotransmitter systems. These substances raise dopamine levels in the body, making the user feel happy and euphoric. Unfortunately, these soothing effects are short-lived and may quickly lead to an increase in anxiety.

According to SAMHSA's 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 9.2 million adults in the US have co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders. Many people have multiple mental health disorders or co-occurring substance use disorders.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, people reported drinking more to cope with the stress of isolation, and 23% of surveyed Americans said they had been drinking more alcohol, an average of 10 drinks per week. To compound this problem, almost half of those surveyed said they were less likely to seek treatment because of the pandemic.

Diagnosing people who have co-occurring mental health and addiction issues is tricky. Many symptoms of anxiety and addiction mimic each other, including:

  • Irritability and restlessness
  • Memory and attention problems
  • Having difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Muscle tightness, numbness, and headaches
  • Sweating excessively or feeling hot

To receive a correct diagnosis, patients must be upfront with their medical professionals about their drug and alcohol consumption. Although there is a strong relationship between anxiety and addiction, there is also support available.

Treatment for Anxiety and Addiction

To heal from anxiety and addiction, Lake Ave Recovery’s therapeutic services go beyond talking. Experiential or mindfulness activities which include restorative sessions in a quiet lake cove, forest bathing, nature walks, light strength and fitness training, yoga, Tai-Chi, Qigong, Therapeutic Massage, Reiki, or any number of new and engaging activities, provide innovative and novel experiences to enhance treatment and healing. Our on-site therapy dogs assist our professional curative team in providing the comforting and uplifting atmosphere on which we pride ourselves. Our clinical team offers a trauma-informed holistic approach to anxiety and addiction treatment. We utilize a psycho-educational, evidence based, solution focused setting, integrating a wellness approach that uses a variety of experiential and mindfulness activities. We can help you learn coping mechanisms to deal with your anxiety and prevent relapse. We can also work with you to identify ways to change your lifestyle to reduce stress. This may include:

  • Increasing your physical activity
  • Prioritizing your sleep
  • Learning relaxation techniques, such as meditation and mindfulness
  • Improving your diet, avoiding stimulants like caffeine, and quitting nicotine products

Both anxiety and addiction can be challenging to treat, but the combination of the two makes it even more difficult. That’s why a comprehensive treatment plan is essential for people living with both issues. An effective treatment plan will help you overcome your addiction and learn to manage your anxiety.

Any treatment program must include an aftercare plan. This might consist of a sober living community, engagement in sober-support groups, and a medication plan. We will also help you set post-treatment goals and learn ways to avoid relapse.

The relationship between anxiety and addiction is complex. The good news is that there are treatment options available if you find yourself falling victim to this potentially life-altering cycle.

Please call 855-923-2354 to talk with a Lake Avenue Recovery specialist if you or someone you know is suffering from anxiety and addiction. With professional help and support, you can recover. The first step is to make the decision to become sober.

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