How are Stress and Substance Abuse Related?

Stress and substance abuse creates a vicious cycle that typically ends with treatment or death

graphic of stressed man and woman and various drugs

This article discusses how stress is a risk factor for substance abuse disorders.

"Stress" refers to the physical or mental response someone has to an external cause - think of an increased heart rate around a ferocious animal. That increased heart rate is in response to the ferocious animal.

What is substance abuse?

Substance abuse is the harmful intake of mood-altering drugs for non-medical purposes despite significant physical, psychological, and social consequences.

Read more to learn how stress and substance abuse are correlated.

1. What Are the Effects of Substance Abuse?

Approximately 21.2 million Americans live with a substance abuse disorder.

In other words, a significant portion of the population is dealing with the profound consequences of drug addiction, such as health deterioration, emotional instability, and legal troubles.

The following are health complications of commonly abused drugs:

  • Binge drinking alcohol increases a person's risk of stroke, liver cirrhosis, several cancers, and other serious health issues.
  • Tobacco abuse often leads to heart disease, lung cancer, and respiratory disorders.
  • Opioid use results in an average of 128 people dying from an overdose daily in the United States.
  • Chronic cocaine abuse could cause someone to have heart attacks, seizures, and abdominal pain.
  • Regular meth usage often causes mood disturbances, hallucinations, and paranoia.

Additionally, comorbidity with a mental illness is common among substance abusers, regardless of their drug choice.

2. What is comorbidity?

Comorbidity occurs when more than one disease or condition exists in someone's body simultaneously.

Drug abuse and mental illness have overlapping causes, including genetic vulnerabilities, untreated trauma, and brain deficits.

Some drug abusers self-medicate through substances to cope with mental illness symptoms.

In other cases, drugs trigger the onset of a mental illness or exacerbate mental health conditions.

3. What Are the Effects of Stress?

Stress is not always a bad thing.

Our nervous system's physiological response to our environment helps us react to danger. That response sharpens our senses and creates bursts of energy to accomplish tasks under time constraints.

Author Criss Jami said, "An over-indulgence of anything, even something as pure as water, can intoxicate."

We need stress to survive, but we do not need to be stuck in survival mode after a threat has disappeared.

Excessive stress hormones wreak havoc on the body. Researchers found that stress is linked to 75 to 90 percent of human illnesses, including hypertension, eating disorders, and strokes.

Researchers found that stress may be as addictive as substances because it releases dopamine.

Dopamine, the "feel good" chemical, is linked to compulsive behaviors and substance abuse.

4. What are the common causes of extreme stress?

No two people experience the same thing in an exact way.

Consider the hypothetical where a group of teenagers gets stuck at the top of a rollercoaster for an hour.

Some teenagers may walk away laughing at what happened. Others might swear off rollercoasters indefinitely. A few may even subconsciously seek out equally stressful experiences.

How someone perceives a situation influences the extent to which they experience stress.

Similarly, whether someone examines the root cause of their stress factors into how well they cope.

Below we discuss life events commonly associated with extreme stress.

5. Financial struggles as a source of stress

Financial stress is almost a rite of passage in America.

Examples of financial hardships include loss of employment, being overworked, paying off debt, and facing eviction.

As we write this article, Americans are coping with the ongoing economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the highest inflation rate in forty years.

Consequently, 76% of Americans are concerned they will need to rethink their financial choices, and approximately half of Americans are "thinking about rising prices all the time."

Some American demographics are more vulnerable to financial hardship than others.

For instance, 49% of American women report that financial stress negatively affects their health, whereas 37% of men feel "confident" about their money.

6. Toxic relationships cause significant stress

Being in an unhealthy relationship can cause significant stress and health problems. Studies found that relationship stress directly affects a person's cardiovascular system.

Characteristics of a toxic relationship could include infidelity or domestic violence.

A spouse might move forward with a divorce to end a stressful marriage and protect their wellness.

For example, a husband may divorce their wife if she uses their child as a pawn to break down the family unit.

Divorce is a stressful journey for most people due to uncertainty about alimony, child support, and child custody.

Researchers found that the stress someone feels from a divorce is second only to the stress of a spouse passing away.

Additionally, divorced or widowed people have 20% more health issues like diabetes and cancer than married people.

7. Effect of traumatic events

Traumatic events refer to any stressful experience that overwhelms someone's ability to cope and harms their mind and body.

Examples of traumatic events include chronic illness, a physical injury, the loss of a loved one, or a global pandemic.

Mental trauma tops the list of most-common mental health conditions. Approximately 61% of men and 51% of women report experiencing at least one traumatic event in their lifetime.

For perspective, depression is considered the "common cold of mental illness," but only 7.2% of American adults report enduring at least one major depressive episode.

Psychiatrist and author Bessel Van Der Kolk has written extensively on how traumatic events rewire a person's brain chemistry and nervous system.

He concluded that trauma causes cognitive confusion, which "leads to problems with excessive anger, excessive shutting down, and doing things like taking drugs to make yourself feel better."

8. How can stress lead to substance abuse?

If substance abuse is fire, stress is often the fuel that keeps it burning.

Carrying a heavy load of stress is the norm in America.

Approximately 94% of American workers cope with chronic occupational stress, and 75% of American adults suffer from physical or emotional symptoms of stress.

Studies concluded that stress is a risk factor for developing drug addiction and relapsing during recovery.

Chronic stress increases vulnerability to addiction by disrupting brain homeostasis or internal biological and chemical stability.

For example, studies found that over a third of adolescents with a report of abuse or neglect will develop a substance abuse disorder before age eighteen.

Additionally, 55 to 60 percent of those living with post-traumatic stress disorder eventually become chemically dependent on drugs.

How can substance abuse cause stress?

Substances abuse may provide a synthetic and temporary sense of joy for someone desperate to escape their worries.

Ultimately, intoxication does not resolve the problem that led to drug use. It does the opposite by compounding initial stress with more stress caused by drug use.

Addiction acts like a parasite that feeds off a person's health, self-esteem, relationships, goals, and pockets.

Getting help for stress and substance abuse

Actor and recovering addict Russell Brand once said that cannabis, alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine are not gateway drugs. The gateway to drug addiction is stress from trauma.

He urges communities to "Communicate. Empathize. Rehabilitate."

To Brand's advice, we add "Educate."

NAMI and SAMHSA provide educational materials, support hotlines, and other resources for those struggling with stress, substance use, or both.

We hope you enjoyed this article. This article is not advice.