Anxiety and Drug Addiction
Estimates are that more than 40 million American adults are suffering from some degree of an anxiety disorder. For those that fit into this category, you have a double or even triple likelihood of also having a substance use disorder. Showing a clear link between anxiety and drug addiction, this coincidence had to be studied further.
“There’s a huge overlap between the two,” says Petros Levounis, MD, chair of the department of psychiatry at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and vice-chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Council on Addiction Psychiatry.
An estimated 18% of American adults suffer from persistent and life-draining anxiety disorders.
Common types include:
- Acute stress disorder
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Panic disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Social anxiety disorder
- Specific phobias
Although anxiety disorders are generally considered to be highly treatable, only about one-third of people with these conditions ever receive medical treatment. Instead, they may choose to numb their anxiety to get through the day, and to try to get more or better sleep or by drinking alcohol, smoking and/or taking prescription and/or illicit drugs.
Symptoms of any type of anxiety can make a person more likely to use substances like drugs or alcohol to cope with these fears. This is especially true for people who don’t have family or friends to whom they can turn in times of emotional difficulty. In many cases, people suffering from anxiety have never been checked for it and they often suffer in silence for years or decades before seeking treatment.
To cope, many turn to substances to quell their pain and if the symptoms persist, they consume even more drugs and alcohol, in part because they are futilely chasing confidence and relief. What’s really happening though, it the chemical substances have started to change the way the brain is hardwired and it becomes a cycle of craving more and more of the substance to get past each episode or anxiety attack.
Drugs work by targeting the centers of the brain that produce the chemicals that lead to a person feeling pleasure, rewarded, or anticipation of rewards. These centers of the brain are the same areas that influence other addictive behaviors that do not involve drugs, like gambling or a food addiction. In the case of chemical substances, though, those neurotransmitters within the brain that are responsible for the sensations of reward and pleasure are made to artificially bombard the brain, which creates a powerfully strong response that almost immediately digs their hooks into a person. For those who are taking certain drugs, whether for recreational or with a legitimate prescription, they’ll experience an powerful burst of euphoria that is very far beyond anything they have experienced before.
People with any form of anxiety who are suffering from addiction are said to have co-occurring disorders. These co-occurring disorders aren’t coincidental, as they feed each other. As such, both must be treated when a patient enters an addiction treatment program. In such cases, this is called a “dual diagnosis” and identifying it is critical to ensuring a higher rate of success in recovery.
Different Types of Anxiety
There have been many studies on the relationship between anxiety and addiction. There has been reluctance among the general population to view anxiety as anything more than excessive worrying or overreacting, despite the evidence. Medical News Today writes that “one of the defining characteristics of anxiety disorder is that the reaction has to be disproportionate to the trigger, meaning that the anxiety-laden response greatly outweighs the real scope of the situation. Even a relatively minuscule provocation might throw the individual into a panic attack that cannot be controlled.”
Anxiety disorder can manifest itself in any number of ways. Generalized anxiety disorder is a very common form, where people excessively worry and stress over simple issues in their daily lives, such as their relationships, office issues, health, or even having about whether or not they’re suffering from anxiety itself. These worries can occur even if there’s no logical reason for them to be worrying in the first place.
Another manifestation is panic disorder, where individuals are gripped by such overwhelming fear and tension that they have difficulty breathing, or display other tangible physical symptoms such as trembling or nausea. According to the American Psychiatric Association, panic disorder effects millions of people.
You can see how anxiety and drug addiction go together as it’s evident to even the most casual observer can see the process:
- A patient feels anxiety;
- The patient sees a doctor who prescribes medication;
- Patient takes the medication but builds up a tolerance to it;
- Patient seeks higher doses at greater frequency;
- Addiction takes root;
- Patient suffers more severe anxiety;
The Cycle of Drugs and Anxiety
For someone with an anxiety disorder, the euphoria provided by drugs can seem immediately counteract the stress, dread, and fear they have been experiencing. The problem is that the euphoria doesn’t last, as the body breaks down the drugs, and the dopamine is reabsorbed by the brain. The person continues to use the substance to keep that amazing euphoric feeling from fading way and the cycle continues.
What’s going on is that the body is craving higher and higher levels of dopamine and they’re turning to drugs to get what is no longer being produced by their own bodies naturally. A smarter approach would be to find ways to raise your dopamine levels without drugs. Anxiety and drug addiction fuel one another in menacing ways.
Psychology Today calls it a “cycle of self-medication and rebound anxiety,” a process of the movement towards a deepening both the addiction and further escalation of the symptoms of anxiety disorder. Ironically, it becomes a sort of catch-22 because the drugs that are bringing a brief moment of relief (even if it’s just nicotine or caffeine) can also cause anxiety. It becomes a vicious cycle of trading one addiction for another.
To fix it, the brain needs to be rewired and addiction treatment is the way.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America quotes a doctor as saying that social anxiety disorder “frequently travels in the company” of alcohol or drug abuse, as people with social anxiety disorder might try to make use of alcohol or cocaine’s reputation as a “social lubricant.” However, the anxiety robs these people of the perspective of knowing when too much is too much (or that cocaine is dangerous in any amount), or even that they have an anxiety disorder that needs treatment and therapy, not drugs and alcohol to get over their fear of talking to people.
For Families Worrying About A Loved One
Knowing how to talk to a loved one about anxiety or addiction is never easy, but you must remember that people suffering from anxiety who are using prescription drugs to fight their anxiety are at extremely high risk of becoming addicts. Anxiety and drug addiction are inexorably linked as evidenced by scientific research. There is no shame in it and the patient should never be made to feel ashamed.
When a loved one realizes that their loved one is suffering from anxiety and drug addiction, they can become overwhelmed as to which condition to treat first.Contacting a professional addiction treatment center can help you develop the best path of recovery.