Substance abuse can lead to anxiety. Anxiety can lead to substance abuse. Either way, it’s a merry-go-round that can become destructive. The relationship between anxiety and substance abuse can be complex, but with the right diagnosis and effective treatment, full recovery is possible.
Anxiety First, Substance Abuse After
When you’re feeling anxious, a drink or a pill may seem to calm you down, but it’s a temporary remedy. If the anxiety isn’t treated, you can feel increasingly anxious. As a result, you may drink more or increase the amount or strength of medications.1
The more frequently you drink, the higher the risk of developing a drinking problem. Also, the more medications you take, especially opiates or benzodiazepines, the more likely it is you’ll develop a habit. Studies show that continued use of alcohol, opiates and other drugs changes the structure and chemistry of the brain.
How it works: Brain receptors release “feel good” chemicals when a person drinks or takes drugs. Over time, tolerance develops as these receptors adapt to a certain level of drugs or alcohol. As substance use continues the individual needs to take more and more to get these receptors to activate, increasing the likelihood of developing a dependency.
Once dependency is present, withdrawal symptoms appear if substance use is stopped, because now the brain needs the substance simply to feel “normal.” The person needs to take drugs or alcohol again to avoid feeling sick, and the cycle continues.
Substance Abuse First, Anxiety After
There are two common ways people are introduced to drugs and alcohol. Some experiment with substances out of curiosity. Others succumb to peer pressure. When substance use continues for any period of time, the brain’s receptors will eventually change, and anxiety is a likely result.2
How it works: When a person is “coming down” from a substance, the brain sends signals that it wants more. Feelings of anxiety rise as the addictive substances leave the system.
Cocaine, crack, meth and other stimulants are known for creating high anxiety. Also, the paranoia that comes from taking stimulants causes apprehension and uneasiness.
Dual Diagnosis: Anxiety and Substance Abuse
A person experiencing a mental health issue such as anxiety as well as a substance use disorder has what’s known as a dual diagnosis, also known as co-occurring disorders.3
Once a person is found to have a dual diagnosis, it’s important to explore the underlying issues that led to the condition. It may never be fully determined which came first, the anxiety disorder or the substance abuse. At that point, the focus is on treating all disorders at the same time, rather than figuring out which came first. Treating both disorders simultaneously and in context of each other decreases the risk of relapse.
Treatment for Anxiety and Substance Abuse Problems
High-quality, specialized treatment is needed on an inpatient or outpatient basis. First, an assessment is performed to determine what disorders exist. Then, a personalized plan of care is used to treat all disorders simultaneously.
A comprehensive care plan builds solid foundations for recovery. Treatment provides the groundwork needed to improve mental health and to help prevent relapse.