Understanding How Stress Contributes to Addiction in Teens

Is stress causing your teen to look for ways to cope? More here on the physiological actions behind stress and how to lessen its impacts. For parents and teens!

minute read

Addiction Is Not Strictly Mental

Today, teenagers are developing addictions at a higher rate than ever before, and higher levels of stress are believed to be blamed for an epidemic of drug and alcohol dependence within the adolescent community. By understanding how stress contributes to addiction in teens, you learn how to reduce the damaging effects of stress on your teen’s physical and mental health.

Indeed, addiction is often viewed as being solely a mental health condition. Yet the underlying causes of a person’s inability to stop using drugs or alcohol often has physiological roots that help to explain the nature of the disease.

This article explore the physical elements of stress…so that you can stop it BEFORE it gets out of control. A good read for both parents and their teens…with a section at the end for your questions.

Types of Stress in the Teen Years

The media often portrays the teen years through rose-tinted lenses. While it is true that this time in a kid’s life marks a period of relative freedom before they take on the responsibilities of adulthood, it is too easy to forget that teenagers also encounter large amounts of stress in their daily lives. At school, students face constant pressure to reach high academic standards, and your teenager may experience elevated cortisol levels as they prepare to give a presentation in class or take a critical test.

Teens today also live in an increasingly public environment where all it takes is one embarrassing video to ruin their reputation. Alternatively, a teenager may feel stressed if they do not fit into what they believe is the normal standards of behavior. Peer pressure, the influence of technology and expectations from the adults in their life all cause teens to experience a stress response that may seemingly never stop.

Teenagers also experience stress as they try to navigate their way through their first adult responsibilities. Your teen may be stressed out about how to handle a situation at their part-time job, or they may be dealing with anxiety about how to deal with a relationship that ends. Unfortunately, teens also must cope with situations that feel beyond their control, such as abuse or having to adjust to their parents’ divorce.

How Stress Affects the Body

In 1936, Hans Selye, a biochemist, found that a person’s body goes through a series of processes when it is exposed to stress that he named general adaptation syndrome. During these processes, the body releases cortisol and other hormones that are designed to provide a fight-or-flight response. As the levels of cortisol rise, the person may experience symptoms such as an increased heart rate and a desire to take action. While this response is often short-lived, the body can continue to release adrenaline and cortisol for longer than it should if a person is exposed to prolonged stress.

While the fight-or-flight response works well in situations where a person must react to extreme danger, problems arise if a person is not able to return to a state of calm. Over time, elevated levels of cortisol can lead to changes in a person’s psychological functioning that increases the risk of mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety.

The Difference Between Short-Term and Chronic Stress

In most cases, a teen experiences a stress response that goes away once the threat is over. This is a healthy situation, but it can go awry if stress continues to occur or never goes away. Once stress becomes chronic, a teenager’s body is flooded with stress hormones that affect how they think and feel throughout the day. Eventually, an elevated stress response can cause teens to try to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol to calm their mind, and this is often where addiction begins.

The Influence of Cortisol on Mental Health

In addition to raising one’s heart rate, cortisol stimulates emotional responses such as fear, irritability and a desire to flee a situation. If cortisol levels stay elevated, then a person’s body begins to release additional hormones to try to mitigate the effects of the hormone. At first, a person may merely feel exhausted or frustrated, but they can also experience a sense of helplessness and anxiety when they are unable to control their body’s stress response.

Warning Signs of High Stress Levels

Stress levels can often build up before a person is even fully aware of what is happening to their body, and teenagers lack the experience to know when symptoms such as insomnia mean that they are having trouble dealing with a situation in their life. For this reason, adults must be alert for signs that teenagers are struggling to handle their stress. Watch for these signs of elevated cortisol levels in the teenagers that you know so that you can reach out with help.

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Increased agitation
  • A refusal to participate in certain activities
  • Complaints of heart palpitations or nausea
  • Problems sleeping
  • Frequent headaches
  • Nighttime teeth grinding or jaw clenching
  • A lowered immune system
  • Nervous habits such as skin picking

For a teen who may have never experienced severe stress before, the influence of cortisol on their body may cause them to feel as though there is something wrong with them. Sadly, this can lead them to further issues such as a loss of self-esteem that places a teenager at greater risk for drug abuse.

Teens who have always been exposed to stress due to childhood trauma or a difficult background may simply believe that these symptoms are a normal part of their life, and they may choose to use drugs in an effort to alleviate the worst of the effects.

Ways to Reduce the Negative Impacts of Stress

Too much stress wreaks havoc on everyone’s mental and physical health, yet teens are at greater risk for falling into negative behavior patterns due to a lack of coping skills. Fortunately, you can do your part to help teens avoid falling prey to addiction by offering them strategies that help relieve stress.

  1. Meditation is one way that teens can take their mind off of a stressful situation and learn how to lower their body’s stress response.
  2. Teenagers also find it helpful to engage in physical exercise that helps the body burn off high levels of cortisol.
  3. Seeking therapy for childhood trauma can help address stress. The process helps resolve the lingering emotions left over after the emotional or physical pain of abuse or tragedy has ended.

When it comes to battling addiction, the old theory that willpower is everything simply no longer holds true. Now that more is known about the effects of cortisol on the body, lowering stress in a person’s life has tremendous benefits for helping teens learn to cope with addiction. From dealing with childhood trauma in counseling to participating in a basketball game, teens have many options available to address the stress in their life so that they benefit from a healthier mind and body.

About the author
Dr. Nalin is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist (PSY17766), a Certified Chemical Dependency Intervention Specialist and a Certified Youth Residential Treatment Administrator. Dr. Nalin is the Founder and Clinical Director of Paradigm Malibu and Paradigm San Francisco Adolescent Treatment Centers. He has been responsible for the direct care of young people at multiple institutions of learning including; The Los Angeles Unified School District, the University of California at San Diego, Santa Monica College, and Pacific University. He was instrumental in the development of the treatment component of Los Angeles County’s first Juvenile Drug Court, which now serves as a national model.
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