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How Stress Relates to Substance Abuse

Sometimes, a little bit of stress in our lives can be a good thing. Stress is the body’s response to outside events or changes and can cause changes to the mind and the body. In some cases, these changes can even be life-saving as the brain engages its “fight-or-flight” reaction in times of high stress or when it perceives itself to be in danger.

Just like everything in life, though, it’s all about moderation. While a little stress can be a good thing for us, a lot of stress can lead to health issues or even the development of a substance abuse issue or addiction. Unfortunately, as our lives become more stressful, we as a society turn to drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with all the added stress in our lives. More times than not, this can lead to a correlation between stress and addiction. 

Let’s take a look at the connection between stress and addiction. If you’re someone who has developed a substance abuse disorder as a result of stress, you can get the help that you need.

How Does Stress Play A Role In Our Daily Lives?

Stress is a regular part of our lives the same way brushing our teeth and going to work are. Stress can be caused by pretty much anything that causes a change to us either mentally or physically. Issues in relationships, jobs, traffic, and financial challenges are just some of the daily pressures that can result in feeling stressed.Stress and Addiction

When stressed the body will tend to do the following as a way to cope and deal with the stress:

  • Increase heart rate and breathing
  • Dilate the pupils
  • Decrease digestion and immune system function
  • Heightened awareness

When whatever is causing the stress is done, the body will revert back to its natural state.

What Are Some of the Negative Effects That Stress Can Have on the Body?

Stress tends to be split into three different types: routine stress from everyday events, stress resulting from a sudden negative change, and stress as the result of a traumatic event. While small amounts of stress might be good for the body, helping keep it sharp, excess stress can have significant negative effects on both the body and the mind. 

Some of the negative effects of chronic stress on the body and the mind include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Headaches
  • Changes in appetite
  • Weight changes
  • Weakened immune system
  • Diabetes
  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorder
  • Hostility
  • Irritability
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Chronic back pain
  • Heart disease

What is the Connection Between Stress and Substance Abuse?

Stress and AddictionWhen people are stressed, especially for significant periods of time, their natural reaction is to look for something that will “take the edge off.” Typically, the easiest way to do that is with the use of drugs or alcohol. After all, many drugs and alcohol have chemical compounds in them that interact with the body’s stress response system to help either moderate or eliminate the symptoms of stress. 

While this might seem innocent at first, many times turning to drugs or alcohol to help deal with stress can lead to the development of an addiction. Some of the most common substances that people take to combat stress are:

While these substances can relieve the discomfort often associated with stress, they’re also incredibly addicting. Prolonged or regular use of these substances to combat stress can lead to addiction. Not only that, but while initially drugs and alcohol can help alleviate some of the stress, drug abuse can actually lead to more stress on the body in addition to a variety of physical, emotional, and behavioral health-related issues.

As with everything else, there are also certain people who are more susceptible to developing a substance abuse issue as a result of their stress. There is a well-established link between childhood abuse (whether it be physical, emotional, or sexual) and the development of addictions to drugs and behaviors. Childhood abuse is extremely stressful for the child but continues to cause problems as that child matures into an adult, with consequential problems with things like relationships and self-esteem.

Can Stress and Addiction Be Treated Simultaneously?

When someone is suffering from a mental or physical issue that leads to the development of an addiction, it’s called a co-occurring disorder. In some cases, the addiction can bring on mental health issues. The good news is co-occurring disorders can be treated, oftentimes together. Can Stress Cause You to Relapse?

Before addressing either the stress or substance abuse issues, the first thing that needs to be done is detox. After all, your body has to rid itself of all harmful substances before it can truly recover. Detox treatment should be completed under constant medical supervision at either a medical facility, a dedicated detox facility, or a treatment center that also provides detox services like New Directions for Women. Attempting to self-detox can be incredibly dangerous and even life-threatening. 

After successfully completing detox, you can then start treatment for your co-occurring disorder. For those that have developed an addiction as a result of trying to cope with stress in their lives, the good news is there are many treatment options that not only help combat the addiction but also teach the person how to better manage their stress. 


Exercise is one of the best and easiest ways to deal with stress and anxiety in a healthy way. Exercise causes the body to produce endorphins, which act as natural painkillers and can lift mood, improve quality of sleep, and, most importantly, ease stress. Not only does exercise help with managing stress, but it is also a great way to help diminish any cravings that someone might have to use again, thanks to those endorphins. Not only that but a regular exercise routine can also help ease the discomforts of withdrawal, develop a more positive outlook during and after treatment, and even help with the prevention of relapse.


Another great and easy way to combat stress is to become more in tune with yourself through the use of meditation. Meditation is widely used as a way to naturally combat anxiety, stress, depression, and even pain. Meditation can also be a great way to combat cravings that come along with recovery and even help prevent relapse.

Behavioral Therapy

Behavioral therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps someone not only recognize what might have led to the development of their addiction, but it also helps them learn ways to keep those same situations from causing them to revert back to the addicting substances in the future. This is valuable both for managing stress and for avoiding substance use in the face of triggering events or situations. 

A special type of therapy known as trauma-focused CBT treats those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Trauma-focused CBT allows those suffering from PTSD to work through the trauma issues that can lead to increased daily stress and substance abuse.

Peer Support Groups

Peer support groups, such as 12-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA), are a key component to not only successfully completing treatment but also remaining sober after your time in treatment is over. These groups have been shown to promote accountability, motivation, and commitment, which improve a person’s ability to avoid relapse in the future. Not only that, attending peer support group meetings are a great way to help alleviate stress in your daily life. A great way to help deal with stress in a healthy way is to talk about it with people who you know and trust and feel comfortable around, like those in peer support groups.

Can Stress Cause You to Relapse?

Unfortunately, stress is also a common trigger that can lead to relapse. Just because you’ve finished recovery at a treatment center doesn’t mean you’re immune to cravings. If you’ve used substances to cope with stress in the past, it’s likely that you’ll return to this behavior. A stressful event like taking an exam or even an exciting event like a wedding can make you think about using drugs and alcohol. This could eventually lead to relapse.

In cases like this, you and your therapist or counselor should have a relapse prevention plan in place before you leave treatment. Remember that if you relapse even while following this plan, it’s OK. Don’t look at relapse as a failure; rather, it’s merely an obstacle or setback on your road to sobriety. All you can do is pick yourself up and start from scratch again. Recovery is a journey, not a destination. 

Do You Suffer From Stress and Addiction?

Stress is part of our everyday lives. Everyone handles and deals with their stress differently. Some choose to turn to drugs or alcohol for relief, which can lead to the development of a drug or alcohol addiction. 

Being stressed and dealing with addiction can be a scary time for anyone. It’s important to remember that you don’t have to go through it alone and help is available to you. At New Directions for Women, we specialize in treatment for women of all ages. 

If you or someone you know has developed a substance abuse disorder as a result of trying to cope with stress don’t let either the drugs, alcohol or stress rule your life for even another day. Contact us today to learn more about the treatment programs we offer, including treatment for co-occurring disorders such as stress and addiction.

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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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