In many ways, stress is an important, natural function of your mind. It’s not limited to humans; many creatures in the animal kingdom experience stress. But humans may be unique in their ability to contemplate stress, which can help us either understand it or allow it to be a thorn that lowers our quality of life. It may not feel like it, but stress can actually motivate you to survive and thrive through challenging circumstances.
A deer with elevated stress levels may be more vigilant to spot a tiger in the bushes. Stress in your job may motivate you to meet deadlines and produce good work. However, it can be a serious problem when you can’t deal with it. Like a campfire, stress is only useful when it’s under control. Out-of-control stress can lead to both physical and psychological health problems and substance use disorders (SUDs).
Learn more about stress and how it’s a significant risk factor for addiction.
What Is Stress?
Stress is a complex response to pressure or threats involving mental and emotional factors. However, it’s not all in your head. It can have a very real impact on both your body and your mind. Stress is often tied to the fight-or-flight response that prepares your body to deal with threats. When that happens, you breathe faster, your heart rate and blood pressure increase, and your muscles tighten. In nature, this response is designed to prepare your body for immediate strenuous physical activity like running from a predator or fighting off an attacker.
The Physical Effects of Stress
In humans, even non-physical threats can cause a physical response. While you’re sitting in a job interview, you may be pretty certain the interviewer isn’t going to attack you, but there is something at stake. The interviewer is evaluating your responses to see if you would be a good fit for employment. A job means livelihood and security. A tough question may threaten your chances of a successful interview, which is why your brain treats it as an attack. If you can manage stress well, it can be a powerful motivating force. However, chronic stress that’s hard to manage can have serious health consequences. It can lead to high blood pressure, frequent body aches and pain, headaches, digestive issues, and social problems. It can also increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.
The Mental Effects of Stress
Of course, the psychological effects of stress are the most noticeable because it draws your attention. In nature, the fight-or-flight response is intended to help animals increase their perception, make quick decisions, and find ways of escape. For you, stress can motivate you to focus on a task. Still, stress that leads to anxiety can actually make it harder to stay focused. Chronic stress that gets out of control can have powerful psychological effects, including anxiety and panic disorders. Extreme stress caused by trauma can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Does Stress Have an Impact on Addiction?
Stress is a risk factor for several mental health problems, but it can also be a significant factor in behavioral health issues like SUDs. Research has shown that certain types of stress can be predictive factors in the development of addiction. Even animal research has shown that exposure to stress increases the self-administration of drugs. The link between stress and addiction concerns how drugs work in the brain.
Most addictive substances work with natural brain chemicals tied to pleasure, reward, and motivation, such as dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin. These chemicals motivate you to seek out and repeat important activities, like eating a good meal. When you’re feeling negative emotions, your brain will cause cravings for things that will make you feel better. That’s why you may crave comfort food after work or during a breakup. Drugs that cause potent releases of dopamine and other rewarding chemicals can trick your brain into treating drug use as an important activity to repeat.
Someone with a dependence or addiction to drugs may experience powerful compulsions to use that are triggered by stress and other negative emotions. Dealing with stress and finding effective coping mechanisms for compulsions is often a part of addiction treatment.
In many cases, mental health issues and stress lead to substance use problems through self-medication with drugs or alcohol. Substances are used to mask negative emotions or to wind down after a stressful day. However, using drugs or alcohol in this way can train your brain to seek those substances more often, leading to a substance use disorder.
Is Stress a Risk Factor for Addiction?
Stress and related mental health problems like trauma, anxiety, and depression are significant risk factors for addiction. Mental health and substance use problems are related for several reasons. One reason is self-medication. But the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) notes that addiction and mental health issues often have common risk factors, including genetic, environmental, and developmental issues. The reverse is also possible. Substance use disorders can add stress to your life and worsen mental health issues. It may also bring on the development of mental health problems that were previously dormant or unnoticed.
Stress and Relapse
Stress is a common risk factor in substance use problems, but it can also make recovery more challenging. If you’ve achieved sobriety, you will have to contend with challenges to your sobriety in your daily life. Chronic stress can weaken your resolve and lead to difficult-to-resist cravings. Learning to cope with stress in healthy ways is an important part of your relapse prevention plan. If you’re in recovery and you’re finding it hard to deal with stress in your life, it’s important to address the problem before it leads to a relapse.
How to Deal with Stress Without Using Drugs or Alcohol
Many people try to deal with stress by avoiding it altogether, but it may be unavoidable in many cases. You can’t control everything and everyone around you, but you can control how you respond to stressors. You can also begin some techniques to make you more resilient to stress. Here are some ways to help deal with stress:
Shake It Off
“Shake it off” is a common phrase used as a prescription for people who experience physical injuries or a mental disturbance. It’s an old phrase that was even used in a similar way in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. Today, it’s often used callously to get someone to move past a problem, but there may be some wisdom in it. Pet owners may notice that their dog or cat will shake after being frightened. Many animals do the same things after a life-threatening event. Psychologists have noticed this, and it may be helpful in humans, too. When you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed, getting up and getting your blood flowing may help release some of the built-up energy from your fight-or-flight response. Some even advocate literal shaking as trauma therapy.
You may be tired of hearing about exercise as a panacea for every problem, but there is truth to the role of physical activity in a healthy mind and body. Of course, exercise is important for physical health, especially if you have a job that requires long hours of sitting. But it can also improve your mental and emotional health. Exercise causes a release of endorphins, which helps your body to regulate pain and improves your mood. Maintaining good physical health can also increase your comfort and energy levels throughout the day, which can help you manage stress.
Everyone knows that sleep is important for a healthy lifestyle. However, as much as a third of Americans don’t get the sleep they need, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Even missing one night of quality sleep can affect your energy levels and focus during the next day. Challenges will seem harder to deal with if you don’t have the energy to take them on, which can lead to feeling overwhelmed. Sleep problems also have a negative relationship with anxiety disorders. Anxiety can cause sleeplessness, and missing sleep can make anxiety worse. In many cases, addressing sleep problems can significantly improve mental health.
Good nutrition is important for the same reasons as sleep and exercise. Nutrition maintains your health and gives you the energy you need to take on challenges. A poor diet can lead to health problems that worsen stress in your life.
Talk to Someone
When stress becomes overwhelming, it’s important to have a support system you can talk with to relieve some pressure. Talking to others can help you unload stress, gain new perspectives, and learn coping strategies. If you are dealing with chronic stress, you may want to speak to a therapist to help you build better-coping responses, especially if you’re dealing with anxiety or depression.