Understanding Stress and How It Can Lead to Addiction

A look at how stress can cause us to turn to substances in order to cope. Plus, a section about what you can do about it! More on the relationship between stress and addiction here.

minute read

Stress Isn’t Going Anywhere…

Life can be rough.

Sometimes, you may wonder if there is any way to cope with an issue that is happening right now.

You are not alone.

Dealing with stressful situations is part of living that is never going to change. While it’s not possible to get rid of all types of stress, recognizing what is causing it and learning how to deal with it will improve the quality of your life. It will also help you avoid the mistake of turning to psychoactive substances to cope… and ending up with an addiction.

Here are some important things you should know about stress and addiction. We’ll review how the decisions you make can either keep you away from addictive behaviors… or lead you down a self-destructive path. Finally, we invite your questions at the end.

What is Stress?

Stress is simply your reaction to events that affect the way your body and mind responds. When you encounter a situation that causes some degree of discomfort, here’s what happens to your body:

  1. Your heart rate changes.
  2. Your blood pressure increases.
  3. The production of hormones and neurotransmitters increases.

This is because your body and mind are programmed to prepare you to meet some sort of challenge.

Are There Different Types of Stress?


Stress is usually broken down into two categories:

  1. Acute stress that is short-term, and
  2. Chronic stress that is long-term.

1. More on Acute Stress

While you may find it difficult to believe, short-term stress is actually good for you. The butterflies you feel in your stomach as you stand before the class and deliver a report helps you be alert and focused. Trying out for the football team and feeling the pressure to perform helps you do your best. Even an exam that will account for a major percentage of your grade could trigger acute stress that helps you remember the course material and improve the odds of making a good grade.

2. More on Chronic Stress

The issue of stress-related problems begins when you encounter what is classed as long-term stress. You are likely to experience this kind of stress as you deal with situations that will not come to an end in an hour, a day, or a week. There may be no end in sight.

Chronic stress can take place when you and your best friend part ways and there doesn’t seem to be a way to mend the friendship. It happens when an event like death or divorce occurs in your immediate family. This stress could even be connected to feeling as if you are not attractive enough, smart enough, slim enough, or not any other type of enough to be popular among your peers.

How Does Chronic Stress Lead to Addiction?

People who are under ongoing stress sometimes turn to substances as a way to ease what they are feeling inside. The substance of choice can be anything from food to alcohol or prescription medications. For a short time, sneaking a drink, eating high-carbohydrate foods, or stealing a pill from the medicine cabinet might ease the feelings that never seem to go away.

The thing is that once you begin to use this form of self-medication to deal with the stress, you are on the road to making your life worse. It’s true that whatever you are abusing lets you have a short time away from whatever is creating the tension in your life. Unfortunately, the stress will be back and stronger than ever as soon as the substance effects wear off.

Examples of What’s Happening Inside the Mind

When you take a drink or pop a pill, the negative way you see your weight, your intelligence, or whatever else is causing stress changes. That’s because the substance often mimics the positive effects of naturally occurring neurotransmitters that affect your mood and emotional balance. As long as the effect lasts, you feel what you think is normal.

And we continue to use drugs or alcohol because of our thinking

So, what’s usually happening on the inside?

Maybe you look at your peers and feel you don’t measure up. Maybe your friends are great at athletics and you feel lesser than because your talents in that area aren’t the same. Perhaps you think there is something wrong with you because it takes you longer to grasp something in class.

Any of these can cause you to feel inferior, of less worth, and even a little scared about what the future will be like. 

It’s not just the conscious dread of being exposed in class; there’s also that fear deep down that you will be a failure. There’s a voice in your head that never seems to shut up. All the while, that voice is pointing out how you are lesser than your classmates, how you will never be anything more than you are today, and that attempting to change anything is futile because you just don’t have what it takes.

When you listen to that voice long enough, those thoughts begin to color every part of your life.

The Downward Spiral of Stress

Soon, stress takes over.

Stress related to school and classmates can begin to spill over into your home life. Now, you don’t feel good enough there either. If you have a part-time job, unchecked stress may lead to you doubting your ability to handle your work responsibly.

As stress eats away at more parts of your life, it’s only natural to reach out for something that will make things better. Even if it only works for a little while, it’s worth it in your mind. For many young people, that something turns out to be a legal or illegal substance.

What Can Be Done?

Substance abuse does not have to be your coping strategy of choice. There are other ways to deal with stress and learn how to control it.

Counseling under the care of a professional psychologist, psychotherapist, or clinical counselor is your first line of defense. A counselor can help you explore what you are feeling inside and come to grips with it. 

The counselor may also encourage you to get involved in more activities that promote a healthy body and emotional balance. What are some common ways of coping?

  • Exercise!
  • Dietary changes!
  • Actions that help you hone your talents and build your self-confidence!

… these are likely to be part of the plan. It won’t be easy and it won’t change things overnight, but measures like these will help you stay away from additive behaviors and minimize the effects of the stress.

The choice is yours.

Will you allow stress to overcome all the good in your life and lead to addiction?

Will you seek help and learn how to diffuse and manage the stress so you can enjoy your life?

Resist the urge to self-medicate and find someone who can help you deal with whatever is causing the inner pain and doubt. Doing so will mean getting your life back and once again looking forward to the future with a sense of hope.

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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