Stress is the body’s response to outside events or changes, and it may be the result of a single event or an ongoing issue. These events or changes can be good or bad, such as starting a new school, getting married, having a baby, an illness, the death of a loved one, moving, divorce, or getting into an accident. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that there are three main types of stress: routine stress from everyday events, stress resulting from a sudden negative change, or stress as the result of a traumatic event.
When a person feels stressed, changes occur in the mind and body. In some cases, these changes can even be life-saving as the brain engages its “fight-or-flight” reaction in times of high stress or when it perceives itself to be in danger. Heart rate accelerates; blood pressure spikes; body temperature and respiration rates increase; focus, attention, and the senses become dialed in; and the need to sleep and eat are diminished.
Everyone copes with stress in different ways, and some may resort to maladaptive measures of managing stress, which may include abusing drugs. Stress can increase the odds that a person will use drugs; in fact, those exposed to stress are more likely to use mind-altering substances, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) warns.
Stress is not always good, however. Chronic stress can have numerous negative effects on the mind and body, including:
- Back pain
- High blood pressure
- Difficulty sleeping
- Appetite and weight changes
- Lowered immune system functions
- Depression and anxiety disorders
- Anger, irritability, and hostility
- Irregular heart functions and heart disease
Stress may also magnify problematic drug use and be a contributing factor in the onset of addiction. The Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences publishes that stress is a widely accepted risk factor for addiction. People who battle addiction may also be more vulnerable to stress.
While drugs may provide a temporary respite for stress, in the long run, drug abuse actually makes stress more pronounced and leads to a variety of physical and emotional health issues as well as behavioral and social concerns.
Stress, Drugs, and the Brain
Drugs can enact chemical changes in the brain by activating some of the brain’s chemical messengers involved in emotional regulation, memory and learning, impulse control, decision-making, happiness, and stress management. Central nervous system depressant drugs, such as opioids (prescription painkillers and heroin) and benzodiazepines (prescription sleep aids, anti-anxiety medications, sedatives, and tranquilizers), slow down heart and respiration rate, body temperature, and blood pressure, enhancing relaxation and sedation. Sedative and tranquilizing drugs increase levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. GABA slows down the stress response and depresses the fight-or-flight reaction, reducing stress and anxiety, and making these substances a potential target of abuse.
Individuals suffering from high levels of stress, or chronic stress, may use these drugs as a method of managing these symptoms. Individuals who may have difficulties managing stress, poor coping mechanisms, and an inability to control impulses may be at a heightened risk to then use drugs as a result. Drugs can provide an escape from reality while intoxicated and serve to mitigate stress, albeit temporarily.
Most drugs also act on the reward and pleasure center in the brain, causing a burst of euphoria, or a “high,” as levels of dopamine and serotonin are increased. In time and with repeated drug use, the brain can rely on drugs to keep levels of its chemical messengers balanced, and drug dependence is often the result.
When someone is dependent on drugs, cravings and drug withdrawal symptoms can be significant when the drugs are not active in the bloodstream. Drug withdrawal symptoms are often in opposition to the drug’s desirable effects. Insomnia, depression, physical side effects, and increased levels of anxiety and stress are often the result. People who struggle with drug dependence may resort to continued drug abuse to keep these side effects at bay. Chronic drug use then actually heightens and exacerbates stress, and can lead to a loss of control over when drugs are used and in what amounts.
Addiction and Stress
Similar parts of the brain may be involved in why some people may be more prone to drug abuse and addiction, and to high levels of stress as well. Stress initiates the release of the “stress hormone,” called cortisol, in the brain. According to information published in the journal Psychology Today, cortisol can damage healthy brain structure, connectivity, and function in the case of chronic stress. Regions of the brain related to memory and learning, some of the same parts impacted by drug abuse and addiction, are negatively affected with continual levels of high stress and the presence of cortisol. Exposure to stress, particularly at a young age when the brain is still developing, can damage parts of the brain that may then make a person more vulnerable to drug abuse and addiction. In a similar fashion, drug abuse at a young age increases the odds that a person will suffer from addiction later in life, the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSUDH) warns.
Mental illness can be a risk factor for addiction, and vice versa. Drugs may commonly be a form of self-medication for mental illness. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) reports that someone who battles a mood or anxiety disorder is between two and three times more likely to also suffer from drug or alcohol addiction at some point in life. PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is a form of anxiety disorder that occurs when a person is a victim or witness to a potentially life-threatening event and then suffers from flashbacks, reoccurrence symptoms, and an inability to turn off the stress response for an extended time afterwards. PTSD is a common risk factor for drug abuse. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) reports that two out of every 10 veterans suffering from PTSD also battle addiction, while one out of every three who are treated for addiction also suffers from PTSD.
Stress may trigger drug abuse, and regular drug abuse may induce higher levels of stress. When combined, stress and drug abuse are not a good mix. Together, they increase negative physical and emotional health outcomes and increase a person’s vulnerability to addiction, which brings a host of additional social and behavioral concerns.
Effective stress management techniques can detract from a person’s desire to use drugs and therefore promote a better quality of life. Proper nutrition, healthy sleep patterns, exercise, and mindfulness meditation are all holistic and complementary forms of managing stress. Making healthy social connections can also help to lower stress levels.
Drug rehab can provide tools for learning healthy coping mechanisms and stress management methods that can be beneficial in sustaining sobriety and a more balanced life. If a person is suffering from drug abuse and high levels of stress, treatment can help.