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Anxiety and Substance Abuse in Women

What is an Anxiety Disorder?

anxiety and substance abuseAnxiety is a natural emotion that many people go through. It’s your brain’s way of responding to stress and alerting you of possible danger ahead. All women feel anxious here and there. For instance, some women may worry when faced with a dilemma at work, before making an important decision, or taking a test.

Occasional anxiety is fine, but anxiety disorders are complex. They are a combination of mental illnesses that cause constant and overwhelming fear and anxiety. Extreme anxiety can make some women avoid school, work, family gatherings, and other social occasions that could trigger or worsen symptoms. 

Many women suffering from co-occurring addiction and anxiety, or other mental health disorders, can control their feelings with proper treatment. Women who continuously struggle with anxiety and fear might have an anxiety disorder. The feeling of living in a constant state of worry can take a toll on someone’s social, professional, and personal relationships. An estimated 20 percent of women who have anxiety also have a substance use disorder.

To deal with nerves and calm the mind, women with an anxiety disorder might turn to drugs and alcohol. Unfortunately, relying on these substances will heighten anxiety disorders when the effects wear off. Many women turn to substances or alcohol to self-medicate or cope with their stresses. However, this only creates more problems and actually worsens the symptoms of their anxiety. 

Can Anxiety Disorder Lead To Substance Abuse?

Women suffering from anxiety disorders are more likely to develop a substance addiction than those without anxiety. As symptoms of anxiety disorders progress, women may turn to substance abuse as a way to self-medicate. Usually, drugs and alcohol are abused as an outlet to ease symptoms of anxiety and produce happiness. Many symptoms of an anxiety disorder mimic the signs of substance addiction. Other mood disorders, like depression, could also occur alongside anxiety disorders. Women must seek treatment for any co-occurring addiction and mental health disorders.

Common substances used to alleviate or cope with an anxiety disorder include:

Substance abuse has a huge impact on anxiety’s psychological symptoms, which can cause substance addiction. After a while, a woman’s body might develop a tolerance to drugs and alcohol, requiring them to increase their dose to feel the same effect as before. This causes a dangerous cycle of substance addiction that can be challenging to overcome without addiction treatment.

Anxiety and Substance Abuse

Symptoms of Anxiety

(Women must experience three of the following six)

Muscle Tension
Sleep Disturbances
Trouble Focusing
Easily Fatigued

Commonly Abused Substance to Cope with Anxiety


Symptoms of Anxiety

All women experience stress in their lifetime, but not all of them have an anxiety disorder. Diagnosed anxiety disorders only occur when a woman has met specific criteria. The primary symptoms of anxiety are excessive worrying, occurring a majority of days in a six month or more time period. Additionally, five other anxiety disorder criteria must also be fitted to be diagnosed.

Additional diagnostic requirements include:

  • Having difficulty controlling excessive worry and anxiety feelings.
  • The anxiety is not only experienced because of other symptoms. 
  • The anxiety symptoms have a definite, negative impact on the woman’s ability to function in her social, personal, or professional life.
  • The anxiety isn’t a result of drug or alcohol use or other mental health conditions.

Women must also experience at least three of the following six symptoms, which include:

  • Being easily fatigued
  • Having difficulty focusing
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Restlessness, or constantly feeling on-edge
  • Sleep disturbances

It can be challenging for women without a prior history of anxiety to tell whether it is related to substance abuse or not. The only way to determine if anxiety is related to substance abuse is to stop using drugs and alcohol.

Anxiety disorder is most commonly diagnosed with women between childhood and middle age, but that timeline can differ for some. An anxiety disorder typically reveals itself as mild anxiety symptoms, which worsen over time.

Physical and behavioral symptoms of anxiety disorders include:

  • Expecting the worst on a frequent basis
  • Hot flashes
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Stress
  • Inability to relax
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating
  • Muscle tension
  • Worrying excessively
  • Restlessness
  • Trembling

The anxiety disorder symptoms usually persist for months and can worsen if left untreated. Sometimes, worries and fears could shift from one concern to another, complicating daily responsibilities. This can create a vicious circle of constant worry and other physical effects. 

Risk Factors For Women with Anxiety And Addiction

One reason behind co-occurring disorders involving anxiety and substance use is their shared risk factors. Both anxiety and substance use can be caused by genetic, environmental, biological, and other lifestyle factors, including chronic stress. Abuse and trauma can also cause anxiety and make some women more likely to fall into substance abuse.

Women with anxiety often turn to substances to relieve their symptoms of anxiety. For example, for women with social anxiety disorder, drugs, or alcohol might help them feel relaxed in social settings. Heavy drug and alcohol use can also numb mental health symptoms and temporarily distract a woman from her problems she’s experiencing.

How Does Addiction Cause Anxiety?

Analysis has shown that substance abuse rates are higher in women with anxiety than in the general population. In some situations, this is a direct result of the substance abuse itself.

Anxiety is a common side effect of many substances and can also occur as a withdrawal symptom. The consequences of chronic substance abuse can also lead to an anxiety disorder over time because of their particular brain chemicals’ interactions.

Drugs and alcohol can also increase anxiety symptoms, making it even more difficult to manage and cause an increase in substance use to relieve symptoms. Common anxiety and substances abused to alleviate symptoms include:

  • Alcohol
  • Amphetamines 
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Cocaine
  • Opioids

The anxiety caused by drugs or alcohol use is referred to as a substance-induced disorder. Substance-induced anxiety disorders are less common than experiencing each as their particular problem. These symptoms usually decrease within a few days or weeks after stopping their substance use for women without a previous anxiety history.

Treating Co-Occurring Anxiety And Substance Abuse

Here at New Directions For Women, we make sure we treat both aspects of co-occurring disorders simultaneously (anxiety and substance use) rather than separately. This is referred to as a dual-diagnosis treatment. These cases can be very stressful and complicated. Luckily, we’re here to make it smooth and comfortable, with you in mind. 

Our dual diagnosis treatment programs are offered for women who struggle with anxiety and substance abuse. This form of treatment typically takes a combined approach of multiple treatment services to treat all aspects of an issue.

Services used in anxiety treatment programs include:

Suffering from anxiety and substance use can make treatment more difficult than substance addiction rehab alone. With proper treatment, long-term sobriety is achievable. Our treatment programs here at New Directions For Women can help women overcome their substance addiction and find healthier ways to reduce their anxiety.

Anxiety Treatment Programs

anxiety and substance abuse in womenStudies show that anxiety disorders are highly treatable with a mixture of behavioral modification strategies, therapy, and anti-anxiety medications. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is one of the most effective therapeutic strategies for treating anxiety and substance use. During cognitive-behavioral therapy, clients learn how to identify negative thought patterns that make them fearful or anxious. 

Clients with a dual diagnosis of anxiety and substance abuse can use cognitive-behavioral therapy to learn coping strategies to help them with recovery goals, even during high-stress situations. Many therapeutic modalities target the effects of trauma and help clients cope more efficiently with the effects of emotional pain or loss.

Clinical services like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) have had positive outcomes in treating clients with anxiety, panic disorder, and substance abuse disorders. Studies have shown that eight sessions of EMDR, coupled with conventional treatment dual diagnosis programs, improved post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression symptoms. During EMDR sessions, the specialist works with the client to resolve prior trauma by guiding them through rapid eye movements. This makes new informational links that help resolve unprocessed thoughts.

Women with a dual diagnosis need specialized treatment that addresses both issues simultaneously. A comprehensive treatment program for co-occurring anxiety and substance use includes various care levels, starting with a medical detox and proceeding with residential or outpatient treatment and aftercare. 12-Step, family therapy, and other therapy forms also help the recovery process by strengthening the client’s support system by reinforcing self-confidence.

Anxiety Treatment Programs at New Directions For Women

New Directions for Women can help if you or a loved one is suffering from anxiety and substance use. We are a substance addiction treatment facility specifically for women to help with many disorders like anxiety and substance use. Don’t wait to get help, let us guide you towards a happier, better future ahead. 

Our hands-on approach can help women get back to living a healthy, happy, and sober lifestyle –  along with treating anxiety and other mental health disorders. But the first step in getting help is to call with any questions or concerns you have. 

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Clinically Reviewed By:

Picture of Heather Black-Coyne, LMFT, CADC II, Chief Clinical Officer

Heather Black-Coyne, LMFT, CADC II, Chief Clinical Officer

Heather most recently served as the Clinical Director of a gender-specific treatment center in Huntington Beach. She is trained in both Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), which serve the needs of our clients, many of whom have experienced both complex trauma and substance use disorder.

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