Stress and Drug Addiction

Everyone knows drug addiction is dangerous and potentially life-threatening, but you may not realize how serious stress can be, or the connection between stress and addiction. Here are some alarming statistics about the health effects of stress:


  • Americans feel 44% more stressed than they did five years ago.
  • Current rates of extreme stress, defined as shaking, heart palpitations and depression, are one in five.
  • 10% of strokes are caused by stress at work.
  • Three out of four doctor’s visits are for stress-related ailments.
  • The risk of heart disease is increased 40% by stress.
  • Stress increases the risk of heart attack by 25%.
  • 44% of stressed people lose sleep every night.

Understanding stress, how it could lead to drug addiction and how it can become deadly could save your life or the life of someone you love.

What Is Stress?

Stress is any factor that causes tension. That is a wide-open definition which hints to the proliferation of stress in our society. Just about anything can cause stress, and for some people, it feels like everything does. So, if stress is everywhere and is a natural part of every facet of life, why is it so harmful?

Your body has natural mechanisms for dealing with stress, and the most well-known is the fight or flight instinct. When your brain senses tension, which is caused by stress, it initiates a complex series of actions to prepare you for what might come next. These physical reactions to stress include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Rapid breathing
  • Cessation of digestive functions
  • Constriction of blood vessels
  • Reduction in tear production and salivation
  • Dilation of pupils
  • Dilation of blood vessels
  • Loss of peripheral vision


When it senses stress, your brain prepares your body to fight or run, a basic instinct left over from caveman days. It slows or shuts down systems that are non-essential to that mission in order to funnel energy to muscles. Your heart circulates blood faster, your lungs take in more oxygen, and your visual field is narrowed to help you focus on the problem in front of you.

The issue is that most of the problems we face in the modern world cannot be escaped by a display of physical strength. You can’t run away from that demanding boss or fight off the aggressive driver who just cut in front of you. When you are under constant stress, your body is always building up adrenaline that has nowhere to go.

Two Types of Stress: Acute and Chronic

Despite the dangers of too much stress, it is a natural feeling that protects us from harm in some ways. Acute stress is experienced for good and bad reasons. It can be the result of an exhilarating risk like a rollercoaster ride or a bold statement made in a board meeting. The stress is temporary, usually only lasting until the experience itself is over. After the meeting or the ride, when you realize it turned out okay, the stress is over and all systems return to normal.

Acute stress gives your body a chance to exercise the adrenal system within healthy limits and boosts your overall response preparedness for stressful situations in the future, especially the ones that might arise without warning. But a continuous series of acute stress episodes can lead to chronic stress which is a bigger problem.

Whether you develop chronic stress because your life becomes a series of stressful events or you face large stresses that remain unresolved for long periods of time, chronic stress can erode your physical health rather quickly. Living in a near constant state of physical readiness for a fight can be debilitating.

Chronic stress can lead to several serious health issues, including:

  • Cancer
  • Lung disease
  • Suicide
  • Liver disease
  • Heart disease
  • Accidents


The physical effects of enacting your natural fight or flight instincts frequently or keeping your body at the ready constantly wears down your systems. Chronic stress can cause depression and your inability to perceive anything except the crisis can cause accidents. People with chronic stress tend to rush around all the time as if they are putting out fires, but in fact they are just reacting to the tension they feel.

How Can Stress Lead to Drug Addiction?

Many people see drug use as a means of escape. They are unhappy with their lives and feel powerless to make actual changes, so they resort to mind-altering activities. The high they feel from using drugs makes them think everything is all right. Although it is a part of life, stress is an uncomfortable condition. When someone is under stress, they seek a resolution. When a resolution is slow in coming and the stress persists, they seek an escape.

In some cases, drug abuse happens as an attempt to resolve the stress. Some people feel they could get more work done and end their crisis if they just stayed awake a few more hours. Others are too wound up by stress to sleep, and they think using drugs to get a good night’s sleep could be the answer.

Ultimately, treating the symptoms of stress will not solve the problem. One drug-induced good night’s sleep is never enough. A few more hours of wakeful productivity doesn’t get the job done. This is one way that stress leads to drug addiction.

Situations that cause a high level of stress for a great number of people provide opportunity for researchers to explore responses and reactions. In a report released following the 9/11 terrorist attack, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) drew the following conclusions about the connection between stress and drug abuse based on several research reviews:

  • Neurocircuits are the networks for neurons in the brain responsible for carrying messages via neurotransmitters, and the ones that respond to drugs also respond to stress.
  • Animal studies show that in the absence of previous illicit substance exposure, drug self-administration can be induced by stress.
  • Studies of opiate addicts reveal that stress is a high indicator of future use.
  • Smoking cessation programs combined with stress coping resources are more likely to result in long-term success.
  • Exposure to stress increases the likelihood of alcohol or drug abuse, or relapse during addiction recovery.


The connection between stress and drug addiction is well studied and documented. Drug addiction is a mental illness with many possible causes, but it is clear that stress is a strong indicator.

Stress and Drug Abuse Connection in the Brain

Stress shrinks your brain and causes mental illness. According to the American Institute of Stress, “Extreme stress events (i.e. divorce, job loss) reduce grey matter in regions tied to emotion and physiological functions which can lead to future psychiatric problems.” Part of the problem is that stress causes permanent changes to brain structures.

The brain is made up of grey matter and white matter. The grey matter is all of the nerve cells that handle higher-order functioning like decision making and reasoning. The white matter is the axons that connect the nerve cells, forming an intricate communication system. When you are exposed to prolonged periods of stress, the connectors in your brain lose their flexibility and no longer function well.

The changes that stress creates in your body to mobilize your fight or flight response are accomplished through hormones. Here are the hormones primarily affected:

  • Cortisol
  • Catecholamines
  • Vasopressin
  • Gonadotropins
  • Thyroid Hormone
  • Growth Hormone
  • Prolactin
  • Insulin


Instead of encouraging normal growth in brain cells, stress-induced changes in these hormones promote an overgrowth of the myelin sheathing that protects nerve cells. This reduces the connections between neurons in the brain, decreasing the ability to learn or create new memories.

These changes also cause the neurons to take in more calcium than normal. The increased calcium allows neurons to fire more frequently, which is the equivalent of speeding up your thoughts. With prolonged elevated calcium levels, however, neurons fire so often that they die.

These changes in brain function make sense and are useful in the short-term. Just like diverting body resources from non-essential functions like digestion to increase muscle strength helps fight off an enemy, re-allocating energy from growth to protective functions in the brain supports your needs in a crisis. It is when the crisis goes on too long that the chemical changes in the brain become dangerous, causing permanent damage.

Stress and Alcohol Abuse

While there is no evidence that stress is a direct cause of alcoholism, the connection between stress and alcohol abuse is well documented. People who believe that alcohol can reduce their stress will develop a drinking habit while coping with stressful events in their life. Some may even use alcohol in anticipation of a stressful event in an effort to pre-empt the effects of stress.


Heavy drinking alters brain chemistry in ways that are similar to the effects of stress on the brain. Hormones, such as cortisol, are affected by both stress and alcohol abuse, creating a new normal environment for the brain. People who abuse alcohol often experience more anxiety during a stressful situation than the average person would. This is because they have two factors altering brain chemicals.

It is not uncommon for people to self-medicate with alcohol to reduce their stress because they think it relaxes them. In the long-run, however, alcohol creates more anxiety which makes the stress symptoms even worse. This then causes the person to drink more. Because the effects of stress and alcohol on the brain are related, alcohol abuse and extreme stress escalate together.

Safe Ways to Deal With Stress

Stress is everywhere. In addition to the big issues you may face in life — divorce, death of a loved one, disease, natural disasters — there are all the everyday issues. Everyone is struggling to get ahead at work, or at least keep their job and stay on the boss’s good side. No one gets enough restful and rejuvenating sleep. Life is complicated.

Add to the regular complications of life the speed at which it comes at us these days. The internet makes constant and instantaneous communication possible. Everyone walks around with a phone in their pocket or clipped to their belt. This means people can not only take calls while walking the dog with the kids at the park, but they can even be reached via email in their car, on a plane or in the bathroom. It’s no wonder stress is a serious problem for almost everyone.

Chances are pretty good that you have stress in your life. We all do. To determine if your stress is chronic and therefore extremely dangerous, you can look for these symptoms:


  • Lightheadedness
  • Muscle tension, especially in neck and shoulders
  • Sudden unexplained changes in appetite
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Sexual performance issues
  • Irritability
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Indigestion
  • Headaches
  • Exhaustion
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Insomnia
  • Tremors


A combination of symptoms with no other explanation can be a pretty good indication that stress is starting to take a toll on your health. Many of the symptoms of chronic stress can be reversed by making some lifestyle changes. It may sound difficult, but your physical and mental well-being are certainly worth the effort.

Approximately 10% of the population is addicted to drugs. There are several techniques for reducing stress and finding safe ways to expel the extra adrenaline it pumps into your body, without turning to drugs. The key is to figure out which methods work for you, recognizing that chronic stress is a killer.

Tips for reducing your stress include:

  • Time management is an excellent place to start. A lot of stress is caused by trying to accomplish too much in one day and then suffering feelings of failure when it doesn’t happen. Recognize that out of a 24-hour day, you need to spend at least eight hours sleeping. Write down your schedule for each day including time for sleeping and meals. This will help you not over-schedule yourself. Then, you don’t create stress with impossible deadlines.
  • Saying “no”is an important skill to support healthy time management practices. Use your schedule to determine what you can do in one day and then say “no”to other projects that come your way. When deciding to commit your time to something, ask yourself, “Do I have to do this?”and “Do I want to do this?”You may feel there are people in your life whom you cannot say “no”to, like your boss, your kids, your spouse, etc.

However, you cannot put unrealistic expectations on yourself, either, if you want to reduce stress. Find a way to prioritize tasks and let these important people know when you will be available to take on their projects.

  • Schedule time for yourself. In today’s frenetic world, this seems like a luxury, but, in fact, it is a necessity. Block out time on your schedule every week to engage in your hobbies and activities you enjoy. You’ll be surprised how therapeutic an hour of needlepoint, a little scrapbooking, or gardening on a Saturday afternoon can be.
  • Increase your relaxation skills. Learn about meditation, yoga or other means of quieting your mind. Incorporate a relaxation practice like prayer or tai chi into your daily routine.


Clearing your mind and allowing yourself to breathe will help reduce stress. It takes time to learn, but once you get the hang of it, your relaxation practice will give you something to turn to in moments of acute stress. Closing your door for a five-minute mediation when your biggest client shortens the deadline, again, will keep your stress level lower, allowing you to think more clearly and craft a solution quickly.

  • Watch what you eat. The day you realize you are under extreme stress is not the time to go on a diet. A more natural response to stress is poor eating habits which lead to weight-gain, and more stress. To reduce stress and keep it at bay, you need to adopt healthy eating habits and stick with them.

Sugar, simple carbohydrates and alcohol — the things you’re most likely to reach for in crisis — are the worst things clearing-your-mindfor your health. Clean up your food act with fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains. A balanced diet will help balance your moods, making you less likely to freak out when confronted with a stressful situation.

  • Exercise is a great way to work out your frustrations from stress and burn off that excess adrenaline. Walking or running can be a calming part of your daily routine. If you are feeling more aggressive, take a kick-boxing class. If you need to express yourself, try Zumba. Whatever you choose, make exercise a regular part of your weekly routine.
  • Make a point to spend time with people you enjoy. Humans are social creatures, and while we are around other people most of the day, we seldom take the time to have enjoyable interactions. Find someone in your life who is always smiling, makes you laugh or just has a stress-free aura and make a point of being around that person regularly. Happiness, the antidote to stress, is contagious.

Stress is pervasive in our society and almost impossible to avoid. It is possible, though, to live a healthy life with manageable amounts of stress that actually help you grow and prepare for difficult situations. The way to handle stress is with healthy habits that you practice all of the time, not just when you’re under stress.


There are no quick, easy or temporary solutions to extreme stress. Trying to handle the symptoms of stress with drugs is not the answer. Drugs do not reduce stress — they simply exacerbate the situation.

What to Do If You Cannot Reduce Stress

If you recognize the symptoms of chronic stress in yourself or someone you love, it is important you take steps to reduce that stress. If you don’t know where to start or if your efforts have failed, contact 12 Keys. We understand how serious stress can be and how difficult it is to change your life.

Our experience in dealing with addiction extends to other related mental illnesses and behavioral problems, such as dealing with stress. We provide a comfortable, compassionate environment to help people overcome these problems, get their lives unstuck and begin their journey toward a healthy, happy life.

Whether you have chronic stress, acute stress or a substance abuse problem, you shouldn’t have to suffer alone. Contact 12 Keys today and let us help you.

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