7 Ways Stress Can Make Recovery More Difficult
Stress is not totally awful as most people assume. In fact, stress is an incredibly important part of our survival as a human species. Before modern industrialization, we were left to our own devices to survive against the wild. The subtle crack of a twig beneath a potential predators foot was enough to incite a stress response in our system to help us survive. This fight-or-flight response is so integral in our makeup as a being that we can see its effects in virtually everything that we do.
Modern technology has placed us in a unique situation where our brains are not fully equipped to handle the everyday stressors that we now have. Rather than acknowledging an overflowing inbox as a manageable task, our brains jump into survival mode and produce cortisol so that we have enough stamina to complete the task.
Perhaps a dose of cortisol once a day would provide a healthy boost of energy, as needed. Unfortunately, very few of us have just an overflowing inbox to deal with. Instead, we have stressful tasks, demands, and urgencies all throughout the day. As a result, we are continuously pumped with cortisol, which can break down the body in harmful ways.
For a recovering addict, this can place serious strain on their ability to stay sober. Though this is a normal and common struggle for many recovering addicts, it is totally manageable. As you can imagine, managing stress is an important part of addiction recovery. Not convinced that you need to manage your stress?
Here are 7 ways that stress can sneakily make an addiction worse:
1. Cortisol can damage brain function.
When the brain is stressed, cortisol levels heighten. When this happens regularly, cortisol can damage the way the brain functions. The hippocampus, the region responsible for emotion regulation, shrinks with chronic stress. This makes it more difficult for a person to control their emotions, which increases cravings and turning to substances to cope.
2. Substances are used to relieve stress.
Certain drugs used to relieve stress, such as alcohol, Valium and Xanax, limit how the central nervous system responds to stress. These substances do this by slowing the nervous system’s response, which then lowers everything from blood pressure and heart rate to body temperature and respiration. When a person is dealing with chronic stress, they may rely more heavily on substances that seem to counteract that stress.
The problem? They do not actually learn how to cope with stress without substances, which increases the risk of being addicted to xanax. Instead of giving in to the substances, or instead of suffering through more unbearable cravings, get your stress under control. Practice healthy habits, such as yoga and meditation, or even long-distance running. Get plenty of sleep, spend time with loved ones, and provide yourself with a creative outlet. Manage your stress, yourself, so that you don’t feel the urge to turn to a substance.
3. Substances change the brain, making it difficult to stop use.
Substance abuse, no matter the duration, significantly alters the chemical balance of the brain. Cocaine, for example, floods the brain with a neurotransmitter called dopamine, signaling to the brain to stop producing more. Though cocaine quickly leaves the body, the signal to the brain lingers for days. The same can be said for Ecstasy and serotonin. With a slowed production of serotonin, the abuser can feel depressed, anxious, and low in energy for days after use. This is where the popular term “Suicide Sunday” was born: based on the effects of the drug on the neurotransmitters in the brain.
Many addicts struggle through this comedown period, leading many to turn back to using. Stress also naturally alters the chemical balance in the brain so that you are left, once again, sluggishly producing neurotransmitters. Many recovering addicts will recognize the feelings of this slump and will crave the substances that can temporarily boost their brains. This makes stress a very dangerous trigger for many recovering addicts.
4. Stress Lowers Impulse Control.
Poor impulse control is very strongly correlated with stress, meaning that the more stressed we are the less impulse control we have. It’s not all in the head, either. Chronic stress, such as rush hour traffic and dance recitals, decreases gray matter in the brain in the regions most associated with stress regulation. When the brain is unable to regulate stress, it is unable to manage other areas of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex. This area is perhaps the most important of all to the recovering addict because it is where we control our impulses and make complex decisions. By leading a stressful life you are removing your armor against cravings: impulse control.
5. Traumatic events and stress are closely linked.
When children undergo high levels of stress or experience a traumatic event at a young age, they’re more likely to cope with stress through the use of drugs and alcohol. Trauma like abuse, abandonment or neglect can lead to substance abuse as a coping mechanism. Additionally, substance abuse can increase the risk of a traumatic event occurring. Not only can trauma lead to substance use, but substance use can raise the risk of trauma, especially in children and teenagers.
6. Trauma (extreme stress) can lead to alcohol or drug abuse.
Trauma is strongly linked with substance abuse and addiction. The stress disorder PTSD, which is caused by a traumatic event, is especially notorious for being linked with addiction. When people have PTSD, they’re unable to turn off their fight-or-flight response. This can lead to sleeping problems, re-experiencing the event, avoiding certain situations, feeling irritable, feeling anxious, always being on edge, memory lapses and poor self-confidence. Some people with PTSD even find it difficult to experience joy. Often, people with PTSD will self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, which can not only increase stress but can also get in the way of other treatments and recovery plans.
7. Detox can cause stress.
When a person is trying to recover from addiction, the detox process can trigger a stress response in the body. This almost certainly increases cravings and withdrawal. In order to detox effectively, a combination of strategies should be used. Options for detox include medications to help with side effects or to stabilize mood, behavior therapies, and counseling or support groups.
People who are suffering from addiction and stress will benefit first from understanding the disease model of addiction, and then immense support. Battling stress should not be a traumatic in itself! Instead, seek healthy ways to reduce your stress and don’t be afraid to reach out to your support network. Prevent your stress from making addiction recovery even more difficult than it already is!
Bill Weiss is an advocate of long-term sobriety. As a member of the recovery community, he feels it is important to spread awareness of alcohol and drug misuse. Being personally affected and having family members struggling, it is a personal quest of his to get the facts about substance misuse in the public domain.