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Stress and Addiction: Can Stress Lead to Drug Abuse?

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It is without a doubt that stress can affect our physical and mental well-being. But can it lead to addiction? The science behind addiction says yes.

In this article, we’ll go into further detail on how stress can lead you to turn to addictive substances. Whether you’re on your way to recovery or want to handle stress better, this article will also help you understand addiction and how to deal with stress.

Stress and Substance Abuse

Stress is one of the well-known risk factors for developing substance use disorders. Research has revealed that there is a significant association between stress and the development of addiction. Stress can come from negative life experiences and stressful events such as emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, leading to psychiatric disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

When people are under a lot of extreme stress, they often turn to substances to cope and escape from their realities. Prolonged exposure to stress and substance abuse can lead to intensified drug-seeking behavior. This can also lead to a pattern of substance abuse, which may coincide with a pre-existing mental health disorder and mental illness.

The cycle of stress and addiction is difficult to break, but it is not impossible.

It starts with recognizing a problem and seeking help with stress management.

But First, What is Stress?

Before we understand the link between stress and addiction, it’s important to know the accurate definition of stress.

Stress is a psychological and physical response to a situation perceived as challenging or threatening. According to the National Institute of Health, stress causes the body to release stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine, which put you in the “fight or flight” response. Being in a fight or flight state can increase your blood pressure, breathing rate, heart rate, and blood sugar level as a consequence of the body’s stress response.

As mentioned previously, stress can be caused by various factors, such as a stressful event at work, toxic relationships, financial or health problems, or even family woes. These factors contribute to causing a person to suffer from stress, and prolonged exposure can take its toll on someone’s well-being.

To be specific, stressful events are experiences that are emotionally or physically challenging and push a person’s body to activate their stress responses.

Examples of emotional stressors are abuse, interpersonal conflict, pressure at work or school, fights, breakups, loss of relationships, and loss of a significant other, family member, or child.

It is also interesting how emotional stress, when experienced at a young age, can negatively impact one’s development. Adverse childhood events (ACEs) like childhood abuse has been studied to put children at an increased risk of higher stress levels. Extreme stress can lead to problematic development outcomes in children, such as learning problems and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can linger into adulthood and lead to substance use disorders.

Aside from emotional stressors, the most common physical causes of stress are food deprivation (hunger), sleep deprivation (insomnia), illnesses, and drug withdrawal symptoms that can also cause extreme pain, strain, and stress to the body.

Positive and Negative Stress

Contrary to popular belief, stress is not all negative. Stress can be both positive and negative. 

Positive stress is known as eustress and is experienced when someone is excited or energized about a situation. Negative stress, on the other hand, is known as distress and is experienced when someone feels overwhelmed and unable to cope with a stressful situation.

Experiencing prolonged stressors cause one to suffer and be in a heightened stress response state. This puts them at an increased risk of turning to addictive substances as a coping mechanism.

Stress Responses

As you might understand already, stress can evoke bodily responses. When one is repeatedly experiencing negative life events and their stress levels are high, they can show symptoms of being under distress.

Symptoms of distress can include physical and emotional reactions such as headaches, muscle tension, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, difficulty concentrating, feelings of helplessness, and irritability.

Dealing with Stress

It is important to recognize and manage the signs of stress to maintain physical and emotional health.

Strategies for managing stress include relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, meditation, and yoga; physical activity; talking to others; and taking time out to do something enjoyable. It is also important to ensure that you get enough sleep and eat a healthy diet. You can improve your overall well-being by managing stress and taking steps to reduce its effects.

Dealing with Stress When You Have a Mental Health Disorder

Dealing with stress is already challenging as it is, but having mental health disorders can make it difficult. It may be difficult, but it’s not impossible to do.

Now, recognizing that you have a mental health disorder can be daunting. It’s difficult to find ways to manage the stress of living with a mental health disorder, but it’s necessary to maintain your overall well-being.

Here are a few strategies from the National Alliance on Mental Illness to help you manage stress when living with a mental health disorder:

1. Take care of your physical health.

Make an effort to eat a balanced diet, get enough sleep, and exercise regularly to better manage the symptoms of your mental illness.

2. Be realistic with your goals.

Setting realistic goals for yourself can help in reducing stress. Break your tasks and goals into small, manageable steps, and focus on completing them individually.

3. Reach out to your support system.

Make sure to reach out to friends, family, and mental health professionals for more support and get the assistance you need.

4. Practice mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a great way to reduce stress. It helps you focus on the present moment and be aware of your thoughts and feelings.

5. Always take time for yourself.

Take some time for yourself each day to relax and unwind. This will help you process difficult emotions and manage stress.

Unfortunately, not all of us can access healthy and safe ways to cope with stress. Some people turn to stress smoking, drugs, and stress drinking, to the extent of abusing them to deal with the stress they’re experiencing.

What is Stress Smoking?

Stress smoking is a habit that is adopted as a way to cope with stress. It is crucial to acknowledge that individuals typically adopt this habit during times of high stress.

Stress smoking is used as a coping mechanism to distract from stress and to provide an individual with a sense of control. A 2022 study even found that smoking for stress relief can motivate a person to continue their smoking habit. As a result, this fuels their addictive behavior even further.

Aside from putting a person at risk for nicotine addiction, stress smoking can eventually lead to health problems such as increased anxiety, depression, respiratory diseases such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), and lung cancer.

Stress smoking can become a regular habit and can be difficult to break. Finding healthier ways to cope with stress is helpful, such as exercising, talking with a friend, or engaging in a hobby. Therefore, it’s important to recognize when stress smoking is becoming an issue and to take steps to address it.

What is Stress Drinking?

Similar to stress smoking, stress drinking is the practice of consuming alcohol as a way of coping with negative emotions. These include stress from depression, anxiety, and other difficult life situations. When a person partakes in stress drinking, it is often a signal of an underlying mental illness and can harm their health if left unaddressed.

Stress drinking can lead to many health problems, such as liver damage, hypertension (high blood pressure), weight gain, and increased risk of cancer. Too much stress drinking can also lead to negative consequences like poor performance in work, relationships, and school. The main reason is that excess alcohol immensely affects our brains. A 2015 study found that chronic exposure to alcohol causes changes in our prefrontal cortex – the part of our brain responsible for cognitive functioning, memory, attention, and control of our impulses.

Since excess alcohol can affect the brain, stress drinking can be a gateway to addiction, which is why it is common for alcoholics to use drugs to increase their risk of developing substance abuse disorders. With excess alcohol, self-control is poor due to loss of inhibition. That’s why alcoholics, even in alcohol rehab, find it hard to recover from alcoholism.

Can You Be Addicted to Stress?

Yes. It is possible for a person to become addicted to stress itself. It may sound ironic, but subjecting oneself to stress is an unhealthy coping mechanism that some of us do. When someone is addicted to stress, they might find it difficult to relax or enjoy life without it.

To add more context, think of stress addiction as a scenario wherein a person gets “high” to the feeling of being busy or constantly on the go. They may even feel a sense of accomplishment when they are stressed. Because this type of addiction causes a person to feel uneasy about taking breaks, stress addiction can lead to fatigue and exhaustion, which is detrimental to one’s health.

What Are Some Coping Mechanisms for Stress?

Stress is an inevitable part of life, but there are ways that can help you cope with it. From simple relaxation techniques to complex methods, there’s a way to cope with stress for everyone.

Some common coping mechanisms include:

  1. Deep breathing – helps relax the body and refocus the mind and can be done wherever you may be
  2. Meditation – aids in quieting the mind
  3. Exercise – triggers the release of endorphins or ‘feel-good’ hormones in our body, and it also helps relieve built-up tension
  4. Journaling – helps process and reflect on heavy emotions
  5. Talking to family and friends – provides much-needed support and help you may need

Interaction Between Stress and Addiction

Stress is an unpleasant feeling, and as humans, it is our nature to seek what relieves us of it, no matter how equally detrimental it may be.

Stress is one of the biggest drivers of addiction. Prolonged stressors can lead to changes in some parts of the brain (e.g., prefrontal cortex) that can make people more vulnerable to the effects of pleasurable yet addictive substances like drugs and alcohol. Stress can also lead to an increased desire to use these substances to cope with stressful events. Moreover, stress can be an obstacle to recovery, as mentioned earlier in the case of alcoholics being unable to resist cravings and relapse.

Stress as a Risk Factor for Drug Addiction and Substance Abuse

Imagine stress as the fuel the more you have it, the more likely you are to turn to substance use.

Stress is a major risk factor when it comes to substance abuse disorders. When an individual face difficult life events, they are more likely to turn to drugs and substances as a coping mechanism. This leads to higher addiction rates as the individual continuously relies on substances to cope with stress.

As mentioned previously, stress can lead to decreased self-control and a heightened desire for a quick fix. This makes it more likely for a person to fall into the trap of drug addiction.

It’s important to recognize that stress can be a serious risk factor for drug addiction and substance use before it’s too late.

The Deadly Relationship Between Stress and Addiction

When we are under stress, our bodies release hormones that cause us to seek comfort. This is one of the reasons why people turn to drugs and alcohol, despite the health risks associated with it. Addiction to drugs and alcohol can lead to extremely uncomfortable side effects, the risk of overdose, and the withdrawal symptoms aren’t kind either. But if the stress is so prolonged and severe, people will use substances to ‘escape’ their problems.

Unfortunately, this can lead to a vicious and deadly cycle of addiction and stress. As a person’s addiction worsens and progresses, it creates more stress, leading to more substance abuse in an attempt to cope. This can be a deadly relationship with devastating consequences, like drug overdose if not caught early and support is not given.

The Impact of Stress on Addiction

Stress can increase the likelihood of a person remaining addicted to the substance they are abusing. It can also increase the likelihood of relapse, decrease the effectiveness of treatment, and cause more physical and mental health problems.

As we’ve emphasized in this article when a person becomes overwhelmed with stress, their ability to cope is impaired, and the risk of substance abuse increases. This can potentially lead to a downward addiction spiral that is difficult to break out of.

Chronic Stress Can Increase Vulnerability to Addiction

Chronic stress can have a lasting effect on a person’s health and increase one’s vulnerability to becoming addicted to substances. This mainly happens because stress triggers the production of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones can lead to brain chemistry changes and impair our ability to make sound decisions. This makes it more likely to turn to substances as an unhealthy coping method rather than taking proactive steps to get better.

How Does Stress Impact Your Recovery? And Can it Cause Relapse?

Stress can disrupt sleep, lead to fatigue, impair concentration, and cause a person to develop anxiety and depression. These negative consequences of stress can lead to cravings, impulsive behavior, and, eventually, relapse. Stress can take you back to square one in your recovery journey when not managed properly.

The Role of Stress in Addiction Relapse

As mentioned above, stressful stations can cause a person to revert to their addiction as it provides temporary relief from stress. Stressful life events can trigger cravings, especially in those with a history of addiction.

One of the major concerns regarding stress during recovery is that it can cause individuals to forget the progress they have made toward their recovery goals. With a supposedly recovering individual losing sight of their goal of becoming better, relapse is, unfortunately, highly likely.

Treating Stress and Addiction Together

Stress is one of the major causes of addiction, and both must be treated at the same time. When seeking help, it is important to find a team of medical professionals who understand the intricate relationship between addiction and stress.

A patient-centered comprehensive treatment plan should be created to address both of the issues to provide the best possible outcome. This may include symptomatic relief during the drug withdrawal, counseling, group therapy, medication management, and lifestyle modifications.

Treating stress and addiction simultaneously decreases the likelihood of relapse and improves chances for long-term recovery. This can give patients the best opportunity for a healthy and balanced life.

The Treatment for Stress and Addiction in a Drug Rehab

Drug rehab is an effective way to treat stress and substance use disorder. It helps patients identify their stress triggers and relapse risks and develop coping strategies to manage them. Drug rehab also provides a safe and supportive environment wherein individuals can focus on recovering and rebuilding their lives.

Treatment usually involves individual and group therapy and holistic approaches like yoga, meditation, and art therapy.

Through these varied treatments, patients can learn how to manage their emotions, cope with stress, and develop healthier habits to replace the need for drugs, alcohol, and other addictive substances. By addressing the root cause of addiction and stress, drug rehab can help individuals lead healthier and happier lives.

Frequently Asked Questions

Accordion Content
Stress is a major contributor to addiction as it causes a person to become more vulnerable to the addictive behaviors they are exposed to. Being distressed can increase the feeling of being overwhelmed and cause a person to seek out substances or activities that provide temporary relief, no matter how dangerous. This can lead to risky behaviors, substance abuse, and other forms of addiction. Stress also changes the brain, making it easier to become addicted to a substance or behavior. Essentially, stress is a key factor in developing and maintaining an addiction.
Anxiety happens when a person is under persistent and excessive stress that causes them extreme worry and restlessness. For some people, anxiety turns to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as drugs or alcohol to escape it and make themselves feel better. However, it only provides temporary relief, and they may persistently turn to substances just to cope and get by. This can create a cycle of addiction that is difficult to break as the addiction itself increases stress and anxiety levels in a person.
Stress is a normal and inevitable part of life, as we experience it as a response to life’s challenges. Stress can come from work pressures, negative life events, financial difficulties, relationships, and health problems, to name a few. Stress can even be caused by subtle changes, such as adjusting to a new routine or environment.
When a person experiences a high level of stress, they may be more likely to turn to substances like drugs or alcohol to cope. Using pleasurable yet addictive substances can provide a sense of relief from stress. However, it is only a temporary solution and can lead to a cycle of addiction and further stress. Stress-induced substance use disorders can even lead to physical and mental health disorders, which can pile up the existing stress and worsen the situation.
Yes. Stress and substance abuse are closely linked. If people are subjected to prolonged stressors, they can become overwhelmed and turn to substances to alleviate the unpleasant feeling.
Yes, stress is one of the main causes of addiction. When we experience ongoing stress, we become overwhelmed and turn to substances that can help us feel better. The temporary relief we feel makes us addicted to it. We may become dependent on substances to cope with stress, thus leading to substance use and, eventually, substance abuse disorders. Being stressed and being hooked on substances is a slippery slope – stress may cause you to either relapse into old habits or intensify your existing addiction.
What’s concerning about stress is that it can trigger a relapse, especially in the early stages of recovery. Stress can cause a person to revert to behaviors they used to cope with problems and emotions. This can be by using addictive substances or engaging in compulsive behaviors such as stress smoking, drinking, and overeating. It is important to remember that relapse does not mean failure, and individuals can use it as a learning opportunity to find healthier ways to cope with stress.

Yes, chronic stress can increase a recovering patient’s risk of relapse. The main reason is that stress can cause an imbalance in hormones, affecting the body’s ability to manage cravings and cope with stress. Stress also alters the brain’s chemistry, which can affect one’s decision-making to adhere to the treatment plan in drug rehab. Moreover, they may be more likely to engage in risky behaviors that can lead to relapse.

It is important to manage stress to reduce the risk of relapse. This can be done through relaxation techniques, exercise, seeking support from family and friends, and taking care of one’s physical and mental health.

Accordion Content
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coping with Stress. Retrieved February 19, 2023, from
  2. Sinha, R. (n.d.). Chronic Stress, Drug Use, and Vulnerability to Addiction. Retrieved February 19, 2023, from
  3. National Institute of Health. (n.d.). Stress. Medline Plus. Retrieved February 19, 2023, from
  4. Lu, Y. L., & Richardson, H. N. (2014). Alcohol, stress hormones, and the prefrontal cortex: a proposed pathway to the dark side of addiction. Neuroscience, 277, 139-151.
  5. 6.Petersen, A. C., Joseph, J., & Feit, M. (2014). Committee on Child Maltreatment Research. Policy, and Practice for the Next Decade: Phase II, 57-69.

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Written By: Linda Whiteside

Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor who has been providing mental health services for over 10 years.

Medically reviewed by: Dr. Ryan Peterson

Went to medical school at The George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.

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