Life can get rough sometimes. It can be even more rough for someone dealing with an anxiety disorder. Simple tasks such as social engagements, fulfilling job functions, taking tests in school, driving, or even leaving the house can cause immense fear. Although it may seem irrational to many, it is very rational to the person suffering with this anxiety.

Then, one day, he or she discovers a drug that can take all that worry and fear away. Although, it only lasts for a brief time.

This is the beginning of an addiction – and a terrible struggle to overcome anxiety.

Defining moment

The words anxiety and addiction get thrown around so much these days that we should take a moment to define exactly what we are talking about.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety can be “…a normal part of life” if it happens every now and then. Anxiety disorders, however, “…involve more than temporary worry or fear” and “…the anxiety does not go away and can get worse over time.” Anxiety can change the way you live your life dramatically due to the feelings associated with these disorders.

There are so many symptoms of anxiety, but a few of the defining characteristics are:

  • Excessive worry
  • Tension
  • Hot flashes
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Heart palpitations
  • Muscle tension

As for addiction, the National Institute on Drug Abuse defines it as, “…a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.” A few of the defining characteristics for addiction are:

  • Cravings for a substance
  • Interference with daily life due to use or other activities associated with a substance
  • Loss of interest in social and recreational activities
  • Increased tolerance for the substance
  • Withdrawal symptoms present when without the substance

Why anxious individuals turn to substance use

Individuals who have an elevated level of anxiety always feel the symptoms described above, such as intense worry, muscle tension, sleeplessness, and even fear. Many individuals may look for ways to calm these symptoms. For example, one may try various coping skills such as breathing techniques, journaling, exercise, etc. This may be a successful method for some, but not all. Unfortunately, for those suffering from severe anxiety, these coping techniques may not be enough and may send them searching for something easier and more effective.

It only takes one sip of alcohol or one hit of a particular drug to offer the relief he or she hasn’t felt in a very long time. It may seem like a miracle drug to someone who has dealt with anxiety for so long, making one blind to the negative effects of this so-called treatment.

It doesn’t take long to realize this is only a temporary relief. It eventually leads to another hit, and another, and another…

This relief comes at the price of an addiction.

Which came first – anxiety or addiction? Is there a causation relationship?

So, does anxiety really cause people to become addicted? Or does the strife that comes with an addiction cause anxiety? It appears that there is a causation relationship between the two – anxiety does, in fact, lead to addiction. Here are three scenarios which reflect one with anxiety turning to substance use:

  • Anxiety disorders tend to come with personality traits that include the characteristic of impulsivity. This trait can lead someone with anxiety to impulsively try a substance, only then discovering the relief that is given.
  • Those with anxiety disorders are often searching for relief – anything that can take away the stress that comes with the disorder. Turning to a substance can provide a temporary vacation from the difficulty they face each day.
  • Lastly, those suffering with anxiety just want to feel normal. Unfortunately, sometimes they find that normalcy in a substance.

Addiction can worsen anxiety

Drugs can affect how the brain functions and can increase anxiety. This includes all types of illegal – and legal – substances. For example, cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy, prescription painkillers, alcohol, and caffeine. They can bring about these feelings:

  • Sleep problems, especially insomnia
  • Panic
  • Nervousness
  • Excessive worry
  • Feelings of doom or impending death
  • Difficulty concentrating or memory issues
  • Physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, sweating, vomiting, diarrhea, difficulty breathing

When taking these substances to combat anxiety – the symptoms brought on by the drug itself or the withdrawal from it can lead to increased anxiety. In turn, the individual will seek out more of the substance.

A vicious cycle develops.

Best way to treat?

Anxiety and addiction must be treated together. They co-exist. Treating one without treating the other will only increase the chance for relapse. Think about it – working through an addiction and sending someone with anxiety back into real life to face the challenges of reintegrating into a sober way of living is just not going to work. Recovery is a tough process by itself. And, learning to live a sober life takes a lot of strength and empowerment. Dealing with an anxiety disorder in early recovery can weaken the skills learned in treatment and lead to a relapse.

Treating both anxiety and addiction together yields the lowest chance for a relapse. Anxiety generally requires Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to be successful. It helps the individual understand the why and how of their reactions and behavioral patterns, as well as how to change these reactions. CBT can help one to learn how to remove the excessive stress, worry, impending doom, and other characteristics from their thought patterns.

If anxiety seems to be a cause for substance abuse, learning how to conquer it will help the addiction treatment be more successful. In other words, this therapy can help remove the need for the substance. Following up both addiction and anxiety with support groups will continue to ensure a success story.

Dealing with anxiety and addiction together is very common. Despite which comes first, it is very important to treat them together. Treatment for addiction that includes therapy for anxiety will lead to the greatest victory in recovery.