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How Does Chronic Stress Lead to Substance Abuse and Addiction?

Medically Verified: 2/1/24

Medical Reviewer

Chief Editor

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

Addiction affects the lives of millions of people in the United States. The condition often leads to serious consequences, including damage to a person’s physical and mental health, financial and legal problems, and relationship difficulties.

Because addiction changes the way a person’s body and brain function, it is often very difficult–and sometimes impossible–to overcome the condition without comprehensive professional addiction treatment.

But how does an addiction start? Some people are born with risk factors that make it more likely that they will develop an addiction at some point in their life. Others develop an addiction because of environmental factors after experimenting out of curiosity or peer pressure. A person’s likelihood of developing a problematic relationship with drugs or alcohol or becoming addicted to them depends on a variety of factors and is not completely understood.

One clear thing is that chronic stress can play a key role in a person’s likelihood of developing an addiction to drugs or alcohol. While everyone experiences stress from time to time, some people live with chronic stress. This stress puts them at risk for many negative outcomes, including substance abuse and addiction.

If you or a loved one lives with chronic stress and addiction, understanding the relationship between the two conditions can help you make better choices about getting treatment.

Understanding the Causes and Types of Stress

Stress is a reaction to events in life that cause some sort of physical or emotional distress or strain.[1] Stress can stem from:

  • Conflict
  • Relationship strain
  • Illness
  • Death of a loved one
  • Changes in workload
  • Loss of security or safety
  • Loss of financial stability or resources
  • Moving to a new place
  • Legal trouble

While these events can cause significant stress, people often have adequate coping skills or support to get through the challenge and move forward in life.

Chronic stress describes ongoing, persistent stress that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope and can keep them from functioning well in daily life. Ongoing, elevated levels of stress chemicals and hormones can lead to physical and mental health problems, impaired decision-making and thinking, and lowered immunity.[2]

Having some stress is a normal part of life. But people who live with chronic stress are at risk for serious problems–including an increased risk of developing substance abuse or addiction.

Nearly half of all Americans report that stress has negatively impacted their life in recent years.[3]

The Link Between Stress and Substance Abuse

Addiction is a complex condition. When a person develops an addiction, there are often many factors that lead to and allow the addiction to take root. Environmental, financial, and personal factors often lead a person to use substances. Over time, prolonged substance abuse can develop into an addiction that is hard to overcome.

The link between stress and substance abuse seems clear. When stress is introduced into people’s lives, they rely on coping strategies to help them get through the challenge. In some cases, the stress overwhelms a person’s ability to cope. This can happen when the stress is too great or their existing coping skills aren’t enough to meet the challenge.

When people feel like they have no other options, they may be more likely to turn to drugs or alcohol to give them temporary relief. This is called self-medication. People with chronic stress may use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate, and this can lead to an addiction.[4]

The consequences of addiction can often lead to more problems and more stress. Substance abuse is not a healthy or effective way to cope with chronic stress. To heal from both chronic stress and addiction, people must receive substance abuse treatment that can give them the tools to overcome addiction and manage stress in healthy ways.

Treating Chronic Stress and Addiction

Comprehensive, high-quality addiction does not stop after detox. It is not enough to simply treat the physical aspects of substance abuse and addiction. Instead, people must learn the skills they need to overcome addiction and avoid relapse. For many, especially those with chronic stress and addiction, treatment must include stress reduction and increased healthy coping skills.

Addiction treatment generally includes a combination of evidence-based and holistic treatments that can lead to whole-person healing. These include:

  • Individual therapy
  • Group support
  • Family therapy
  • Medication management
  • Medical care
  • Mental health treatment
  • Education
  • Holistic therapies–mindfulness, exercise, nutrition counseling, creative expression, acupuncture, and other healing practices
  • Stress management

During treatment, people gain the skills they need to overcome addiction. They may begin to explore holistic practices that help them manage stress. Exercise, meditation, yoga, and massage have been proven to help people experience less stress and have more control over their reactions to stress. These practices, as well as the other skills they learn in therapy, can help people cope with stress and challenges in a healthy way for the rest of their lives.

Learn More About Stress Management in Addiction Treatment

If you or someone you love require substance abuse treatment or support at any stage of addiction recovery, reach out to the staff at the Carolina Center for Recovery to get more information about the programs we offer.

Don’t wait another day for the treatment you need and deserve. Call today.