Updated: Apr 27, 2022
The sheer number of studies exploring the link between stress and addiction shows a strong correlation. This is both the bad and the good news. The more is known about it, the sooner therapists and scientists will develop successful treatments. In the meantime, the best we can do is understand this toxic relationship, help those who succumbed to it and develop healthy mechanisms against it.
The vicious circle of stress and addiction
What was once considered an addiction has evolved. Nowadays, substance abuse is only one branch of addiction disorders where gambling, computer, shopping, and food addiction are all relatively new sprouts. Why is the spectrum of addictions broader than ever?
While stress isn't the only culprit, it has a significant impact on the development of addictions. Note that not all over-stressed persons are susceptible to substance abuse behavior, but stress is a considerable risk factor for those who are vulnerable.
No relief at the core of the stress/addiction relationship
Addictions are often a result of a failed attempt at stress relief, either through substance abuse or some other form of dealing with trauma. Because that is what stress is - our body's response to a threatening situation.
However, substance abuse lowers stress thresholds and brings additional stress during the abstinence period to the equation. Eventually, the more substance the user takes, the stronger the craving, but the stress relief becomes more elusive.
What is wrongly perceived as stress relief is an introduction to substance abuse. The person may not be resilient enough to grasp the gravity of the situation on time. Rather, a strong support network is a beneficial and valuable asset during healing treatments and traditional addiction treatments.
To answer the question from the beginning. Stressors have been present since the birth of humanity, and they haven't evolved much. What has changed is our lifestyle, at the same time providing countless challenges but limiting our ability to cope with them, which requires us to look for help.
The immense responsibility falls on the support network - the family and close friends to recognize the red flags in their loved one's behavior. And most importantly, act upon the signs that help is needed in the early stage.
The quantity and quality of stress that shapes the link with addiction
The most usual stressors are psychological (emotional, social) and physical (physiological), followed by pharmacological stressors. The first generally relates to interpersonal conflicts and abuse, the loss of a loved one, the second to significant personal injuries, food and sleep deprivation, neglect, and the last to binge (ab)use of psychoactive substances.
This distinction between stressors has helped scientists determine the type and intensity of stimuli that negatively impact the body and define the link between stress and addiction.
It is interesting to point out that low-intensity stress is considered acceptable. It helps us develop healthy coping techniques to more easily deal with the same or similar stressful situation in the future. As there isn't an imminent danger to ourselves, our sense of mastery over the situation can even come out as pleasurable. Hence, response to low-intensity stress works for us similarly to an immune system producing antibodies to a vaccine.
However, if the intensity of acute stress is high and/or the stress is continuous, our sense of mastery slips away. Dealing with stress healthily becomes increasingly difficult and leads to poor, inadequate adaptation techniques. In other words, a person starts making adjustments that are not in their best interest, leading to addiction.
The most vulnerable groups
Studies have isolated three major groups most vulnerable to the association of stress and addiction. Adolescents living through adverse events such as the loss of a parent, divorce, single-parent family structure, and physical and psychological abuse are more strongly exposed to the risk of substance abuse.
Childhood trauma and maltreatment play another significant villain role. The physical and psychological stressors affecting children at a young age directly correlate with the development of addiction in the adult years. Children do not have developed healthy stress management systems to help them cope with the sudden trauma.
And finally, substance use disorders also come as a result of cumulative stress. It is found that stress enhances the rewarding effect of substances. When a person is exposed to chronic stress, the probability of addiction development rises as addictive substances directly influence the brain's reward circuitry—the greater the pressure, the stronger the urge to alleviate it through addiction.
Overcoming addiction through stress management
The link between stress and addiction has not presented us only with challenges. It has revealed possible treatment solutions and all the helpful resources for healing that can assist along the way. Just as there are different types of stressors and addictions, there are various ways to deal with them and eventually overcome them.
For every unhealthy coping mechanism such as addiction, there is a coping strategy, such as problem-focused or emotion-focused coping, religious coping, social support, and meaning-making. Social support is often a source of strong emotional support that, combined with instrumental support, brings about the best results.
People at risk of developing addictions and those already battling them should also consider stress-relieving practices as they significantly improve stress resilience and positively impact mechanisms related to chronic stress.
A couple of important last notes
Stress alone will not lead to addiction in many people but will be a trigger for many others. This is why it's crucial to invest resources to support vulnerable groups. And especially help children and adolescents develop healthy mechanisms for coping with stress.
The more we know the link between stress and addiction, the more successful the efforts in overcoming addictions and their prevention will be. It is never too early to learn nourishing stress-relieving skills. While they may not remove all the causes of addiction development, they will make the major ones less threatening.
Guest Author: Tanya Douglas