The way stress affects our bodies is similar to the way addictive drugs affect us. Stress increases blood pressure, speeds up heart rates, slows down digestion, reduces the bodies’ immune defenses, tenses muscles, and interferes with sleep. In a summary of scientific research that looked at the connections between stress and addiction, the National Institute on Drug Abuse found significant overlap between “neurocircuits that respond to drugs and those that respond to stress.”
Not only are the effects of stress and drug abuse closely related, but there’s a body of research that suggests stress itself can become an addiction. Let’s first compare the effects of stress and substance abuse on the body, and then we’ll cover six ways to deal with stress without self-medicating.
Effects of stress and drug abuse
During a stressful event, our fight or flight response kicks in, which generates the release of hormones called adrenaline and cortisol, which affects every system in our bodies — cardiovascular, digestion, reproduction, gastrointestinal, mental health etc. The body’s reaction to stress is similar to its reaction to certain drugs.
Some drugs produce a euphoric feeling, which is the result of a surge in the body’s production of endorphins and other neurotransmitters caused by the substances. That has a rippling effect throughout the body.
Research also suggests that there may be a correlation between addiction and a person’s sensitivity to stress, as well as a cause and effect between stress and substance abuse.
When some people are stressed, they turn to alcohol and drugs to self-medicate. They cling to the immediate euphoric feeling they get from the temporary effects of the substances on their brains, and their bodies deceive them into thinking it’s working. So they drink or use more. The cycle begins, and now, not only is the body stressed, but it’s also being further stressed from substance abuse. It’s a dangerous cycle.
Post-traumatic stress and substance abuse
A study published in 2007 found a correlation between traumatic events and substance abuse. In this study, the researchers observed more than 1,000 people who lived near the New York City sites of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. They found an increase in:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Alcohol and drug abuse, especially among people who drank and used drugs before the 9/11 attacks
Indeed, people who experience post-traumatic stress disorder — a psychiatric condition that people experience after being part of or witnessing traumatic events like terrorist attacks, natural disasters and acts of violence — are at higher risk for drug abuse and addiction.
6 ways to handle stress without drinking and abusing drugs in Orange County
The American Psychological Association suggests six strategies for dealing with stress. Some of their strategies may seem obvious, or even a little basic — do we really need to be reminded to enjoy life? Well, based on the survey data we shared earlier in this article, signs say yes, we do need reminders about the simple ways you can reduce stress, especially without turning to alcohol and drugs.
Make time for enjoyable activities
Schedule time every day to do things you enjoy, and practice being 100% present during those activities. As stressful thoughts or obsessive thoughts creep in, notice them and let them pass. Redirect your mind back to whatever you are doing — sewing, reading, gardening, hiking, making crafts. Southern California is unique in it's diverse and numerous options for finding non-drug related enjoyable activities like going to Huntington beach to enjoy a swim and sunshine or hiking at Crystal Cove State Park.
Identify causes of stress
Most of us who make this list will have similar items on our list of stressors — job, family, money, health, family, politics, the economy, etc. The APA suggests carrying a journal throughout the day and making notes when you feel stressed — what time was it, what caused it, and how did you feel. List your commitments, prioritize the important things, eliminate things that aren’t essential, and ask for help with things that you don’t want to do alone. Again, it sounds simple, but when was the last time you cleaned up your to-do list?
Build strong relationships
When you were a kid, you probably heard some adults advise you to surround yourself with only people who bring out good things in you. Easier said than done, right? After all, we don’t always have choices when it comes to our family, coworkers, neighbors and acquaintances. For recovering drug addicts in Orange County, we offer sober houses and alumni groups that foster a sense of community that can help deal with stress.
During times of stress, it’s important to communicate to the people closest to you about how you’re feeling, even if it’s just to say, “It’s not you; it’s me. I’m feeling stressed, and I need help/support/patience.” Strengthen the relationships that bring out the best in you, and consider putting a little distance between yourself and people who exude negativity and contribute to your stress.
And when you can’t completely remove yourself from stressful situations … take a break; walk away when you feel angry.
Walk away when you feel angry
Stress kicks in our fight-or-flight response, so calmly walking away from an angering situation isn’t easy. This takes practice and awareness. Some experts recommend counting to 10, repeating a calming phrase, or visualizing something that you find calming, such as a favorite vacation spot, loved one or memory.
Speaking of walking, there is a lot of research that supports a connection between exercise and stress reduction. Even a short 15- to 20-minute walk can reduce the effects of stress.2 Exercise produces endorphins, which are those “feel good” hormones that create an analgesic effect; it’s our natural way to deal with stress.
Rest your mind
Each year, the APA conducts a “Stress in America” survey. They found that 40% of surveyed adults said they lay awake at night, unable to fall asleep, because they’re stressed. You don’t have to go into a deep state of meditation to quiet your mind. Try these tactics:
- Go to bed at the same time every night
- Turn off electronic devices one hour before bed
- Cut back on caffeine consumption later in the day
- Practice yoga or simple stretches before bed
Try apps like Calm or Headspace, which have guided meditations that range from a few minutes to much longer. Yes, we told you to turn off your electronic devices, but if you use them for relaxation, we’ll give you a pass!
Ask for help
Perhaps the most difficult thing to do when you experience stress is to ask for help. If you’ve struggled with stress and addiction, you can reach out to our addiction counselors for help; we’re available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
You are not alone — seek professional help in addition to support from your network. If you’ve got a sponsor, call or text them and let them know you’re hurting. Reach out to a trusted friend or relative who can lend a listening ear. Seek professional help from a therapist, counselor, psychologist or other licensed mental health practitioner.
Stress relief drugs
Before you seek assistance from anti-anxiety medications, whether you get them legally, illegally (which we’d never advocate), or from a licensed healthcare professional, consult with your doctor and sober-living support system. Let your prescribing doctor or nurse know that you struggle with addiction.
There are, however, some over-the-counter and natural remedies that people use to successfully combat stress. Whether they offer a placebo effect or legitimate antidote to stress is subject for debate. Always consult with your healthcare provider before taking any supplements.
- Chamomile tea
- Aromatherapy (lavender is a common recommendation)
- Kava root (taken in supplement or liquid form)
- Valerian root (supplement or tea)
- Lemon balm
Addicted to stress
If you are addicted to stress — you are obsessively drawn to chaos and seek the rush when things are calm — or you’re stressed and worried about relapsing or slipping into alcohol or drug addiction, we’re glad you’re reading this.
Our team is standing by, ready when you are, to intervene. Contact us today.