Anxiety is part of the human condition. A person is faced with a source of stress, such as an upcoming performance review or an oncoming car that swerves into the wrong lane, and the body is flooded with chemicals that push the person to fight or flee. The heart races, pupils dilate, sweat comes seeping out of every pore, and breathing becomes rapid and shallow. When the stress prompt is removed, those sensations disappear and the person is left to recover, often by taking a long, deep nap. People with anxiety disorders, however, don’t see their stressful symptoms disappear with the wind. In fact, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, people with anxiety disorders feel symptoms for six months or longer, and those symptoms can get worse with time. These people might feel dips on their stress levels, of course, but they’re never completely restored to a state anyone would consider “normal,” and they may turn to drugs or alcohol in a desperate attempt to make things better.
Anxiety disorders and drug addiction can blend and weave together, creating a knot of misery that’s hard to untangle. What seemed like a solution becomes an integral part of the problem, and it can be difficult for people to see how their situations might change and how they might get better. With therapy, however, the feelings of terror can ease, and the tight grip of an addiction might begin to loosen. With this kind of help, people can be restored to a life they might call normal.
Prevalence of Anxiety
Anxiety disorders are considered common, impacting more than 25 million Americans, according to the American Psychiatric Association. They might be considered common, in part, because this umbrella term covers a wide swath of behaviors. Where depression, for example, might describe a very limited type of mental health issue, anxiety disorders describe a great deal of individual problems. They all have a feeling of pressure, stress and unease at their center, but each type of anxiety disorder has its own special ingredient to add to the mix.
Common anxiety disorders include:
- Generalized anxiety disorder. Recurring fears about inconsequential things, such as finances or health, characterize this disorder. People with this condition may feel as though something horrible is right around the corner, although if pressed, they may not be able to articulate the source of their specific fears.
- Panic disorder. A sudden and overwhelming feeling of intense fear strikes people with this condition, and they may feel so terrible when an attack takes place that they may believe that they’re dying.
- Phobia-based disorder. Fears of spiders, bridges, airplanes, speaking in public, or other items or situations that others find mildly distressing cause intense fear in people with phobias. One specific item may cause symptoms, but in time, those phobias can spread to other targets.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder. People who have been through a traumatic event, such as an assault or a natural disaster, can be subjected to recurring sights, sounds, and images from the event that come on without warning and induce feelings of terror and dread.
People who have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are sometimes included under the umbrella of panic disorder, as people with this mental health issue can develop persistent and unwanted thoughts and worries that drive them to perform repetitive acts. These people may also have phobias of situations, including messy situations or disordered situations, and they might feel a spike of stress when they’re pushed to work through or endure something like this. People with OCD may have issues that reach far beyond anxiety, however, and some people with this disorder feel no symptoms of stress at all. So while it’s appropriate for some people with OCD to think of themselves as having an anxiety disorder, it’s not the right fit for all people.
Self-Medication and Addiction
At first glance, drugs might seem like an ideal way to suppress anxiety. Addictive drugs tend to lock into lock into the brain’s pleasure center, and they can increase feelings of happiness and calm. Addictive drugs can also bring with them a feeling of sedation, slowing down the heart rate and reducing the ability of the person to see and hear with accuracy. Drugs, in other words, can help to combat some of the physical and mental manifestations of stress, and for people with anxiety disorders, this can be intensely welcome help.
Some addictive drugs can cause changes in the brain that lead to mental illnesses, including depression. But anxiety disorders seem to come before addictions set in, meaning that these addictions seem to take hold when people attempt to find ways to cope with their mental health concerns. For example, a study in the journal Addiction found that high levels of stress were associated with drinking behaviors in young people. Studies like this seem to suggest that anxiety leads people to abuse substances, and unfortunately it’s not a healthy behavior.
When addictive drugs wear off and the person is restored to sobriety once more, all of the triggers for anxiety are still in place and all of the little feelings are just waiting to come back. A person with an addiction and anxiety could ride between extreme highs and extreme lows on a daily basis, and this can make day-to-day life harder to bear. In addition, drugs can disturb sleep, and this can make an underlying feeling of nervousness and paranoia worse. People with anxiety disorders might also worry about what they’ve said or done while under the influence, or they may worry about getting caught with drugs. This additional anxiety trigger can be hard to overlook.
While it’s clear that blending addiction and anxiety isn’t healthy, it’s also clear that this behavior is common. In a study of the issue, published in the journal Addiction, the lifetime rate of alcoholism in those with anxiety disorders stood at 9.4 percent, while people who didn’t have anxiety had a lifetime rate of alcoholism of 3.7 percent. It’s sad to think that these conditions walk hand in hand so very frequently, but it’s clear that they do.
Substances of Choice
People with anxiety disorders could lean on almost any substance, including:
Research suggests that the availability of drugs that helps to inform the preference. In other words, people don’t seek out specific types of substances in order to find relief. Instead, they tend to lean on the substances that they have within easy reach. In one study of the issue, published in the journal Addictive Behaviors, researchers found no link between the type of anxiety the person had and the drug the people used. They did note, however, that people felt out of control. This is a particularly sad finding, as many addictive drugs don’t cause an increased feeling of control. Instead, addictive drugs can cause hallucinations, making a person feel even more zapped and strange. People who abuse drugs alongside anxiety might know this all too well.
Having anxiety alongside addiction doesn’t prevent a person from obtaining another mental health disorder. In fact, as mentioned, addictive drugs can sometimes cause brain changes that can lead to other mental illnesses. People who abuse drugs like heroin or prescription painkillers, for example, can amend the brain’s ability to create and respond to feel-good chemicals. In time, these people might be chemically unable to experience pleasure or joy, and they may feel a deep and abiding depression even while they’re taking drugs. In a study of the prevalence of depression with anxiety disorders, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, researchers found that 47.2 percent of those who had depression at least once in life also had an anxiety disorder at least once in life. As drugs continue to wend their way through the person’s mind and body, they can leave a trail of destruction behind that can lead to additional mental health concerns, along with a worsening feeling of anxiety.
People who abuse substances can also experience social isolation, as they begin to cut ties with the friends, family members and coworkers who might bring them help. They nurture their addictions instead of nurturing their relationships, and the social isolation they can feel is extreme. People with anxiety disorders often need the support of their friends and family in order to handle their daily lives. For example, people with panic disorders can become so worried about having attacks in public that they might refuse to leave their homes unless a trusted family member comes along as well. Addictions can break these caregiver bonds, leaving a person with anxiety feeling even more isolated and alone.
In the past, when addictions developed alongside an anxiety issue, therapies focused only on the addiction. The idea was that the addiction caused the mental distress, and once that distress was gone, the person would be restored to health and no more therapy would be needed. Now, experts are well aware that mental illnesses can work as triggers for addiction. When a person with an anxiety disorder is placed in a situation that causes stress, that person is likely to feel a deep craving for drugs, if that person has a history of addiction. Leaving the mental illness untreated is a bit like leaving a fire burning in the background. There’s the possibility that the fire may go out on its own, but it’s more likely that it will grow and spread.
Modern addiction treatment programs use Dual Diagnosis approaches, in which a person with a mental illness is given a suite of treatments that deal with both the mental illness and the addiction at the same time. The therapies are intense, but they move forward at the same time.
Each therapy session is designed to help the person see how the two conditions are linked and how they can be handled. It’s the best way to handle an addiction and anxiety.
This is the kind of care we provide at The Canyon. We offer our clients a complete mental health screening, so we know exactly what kind of issue our clients might need assistance with, and we offer a complete Dual Diagnosis program that can blend techniques used to combat addiction and mental health disorders, and we can provide real relief. We also use meditation and exercise to help soothe the nerves and bring a sense of inner peace. This could be an amazing help to people struggling with anxiety. If you’d like to know more, please contact us.