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6 Reasons why Anxiety can lead to Drug Addiction

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pink and white pills on paper with anxiety written and a waismann method logo. Illustration for anxiety can lead to drug addiction

Anxiety Can Lead to Drug Addiction

Opioid addiction is in the news a lot these days and for a good reason. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that each day over 90 people die from an opioid overdose. Addiction to this potent group of drugs has become an epidemic in this country, but why?
The obvious answer is that patients develop a substance abuse problem, like heroin addiction, after taking legally prescribed medication like oxycodone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports the number of opioid prescriptions issued quadrupled in one decade, so that is undoubtedly a factor, but not the only one.
Studies show that anxiety is one of the more common behaviors found in people with drug addiction. In fact, the level of patients with anxiety and addiction is disproportionate to the rest of the general population. Anxiety and addiction can also work together to create a cycle of abuse. A person might experience overwhelming anxiety and then use an opioid to self-medicate. The rebound anxiety that comes from the addiction creates a spiral that is difficult to stop. Once they become dependent, it is more difficult to quit the abuse and beat the cycle. This is an example of how anxiety can lead to drug addiction.
The question is what can cause anxiety so overwhelming that a person opts for opioid drugs to control it? Consider ten common anxiety triggers that might lead to opioid substance abuse.

1) Peer Pressure

Peer pressure is a mighty motivator in today’s high-tech society. One could argue peer pressure has always been a factor, especially for teens and young adults. Today, though, that pressure is non-stop.
People use the Internet as a form of escape from their daily lives, but that immersion just amps up the peer pressure, and with it, the level of anxiety. At least one study found that the pressure put on teens via social media increases the risk of depression and anxiety, both common comorbid conditions for individuals with a substance abuse problem. Hence the peer pressure anxiety can lead to drug addiction.

2) Faulty Relationships

Anxiety is both a causal factor and a complication of relationship problems. When anxiety starts to take over, it leads to:

  • Suspiciousness
  • Being Needy
  • Impulsiveness

With each argument and makeup, that cycle of fear and paranoia begins all over again, too. People will reach for anything, including an opioid drug, to stop the runaway train which leads to an even more dysfunctional relationship.
Of course, the problem relationship does not have to be a romantic one. Growing up in a household with parents that are not present, that argue all the time, or that themselves abuse alcohol or drugs can cause anxiety, too. As a result, relationship-influenced anxiety can lead to drug addiction.

3) Financial Difficulties

There is a lot of responsibility that comes with being an adult. There is rent or mortgage to pay, school tuition, and healthcare insurance bills that can add up quickly to financial anxiety. The need to continually earn takes a toll, so a person might reach for a quick fix to relieve the pressure. Therefore, financial anxiety can lead to drug addiction.

4) Grief

Society tends to equate grief with sadness, but anxiety becomes a problem, too. At first, it’s dealing with all the stuff that comes with death like:

  • Making the arrangements
  • Helping others manage their grief
  • Taking care of the financial issues like a will or medical bills
  • Going through a lost loved one’s belongings

By the time everything starts to settle, grief sets in and that is overwhelming for many. It’s understandable that someone might look to escape from that, even for a few minutes.

5) Poor Coping Skills

Today so much emphasis is put on academic achievement that emotional health is falling by the wayside. The more kids try to succeed the more the pressure builds, too. Children fail to learn ways to manage their emotions and deal with anxiety, so they go into adulthood lacking the coping skills necessary for a happy life.

6) Anxiety Disorders

Sometimes the level of anxiety goes beyond what is typical and becomes a clinical problem. There are several types of anxiety disorders such as:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Panic disorder
  • Phobias

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that about 18 percent of adults experience one or more of these problems. A certain percentage of them will use drugs to cope with the symptoms.
There is also a biological connection between anxiety disorders and addiction. They both involve similar brain regions. The fact that many users have anxiety issues seems to indicate an overlap between these areas of the brain. In other words, changes in the brain stemming from one, impact the other. For this reason, people who use opioids suffer from enhanced, and sometimes, uncontrollable anxiety.
The goal of any good drug treatment program is to control both the addiction and any underlying mental health issue at the same time. For many people seeking help for opioid addiction, this will include looking for ways to manage their anxiety-like identifying key triggers and finding coping mechanisms that help overcome that sense of panic beyond drug abuse.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorder is a highly treatable condition.  A medical detoxification combined with cognitive-behavioral therapy is one of the most effective modalities for both the treatment of anxiety and opioid dependence.

How to Provide Emotional Assistance

Talking to a family member or friend about addiction and anxiety can be very difficult. Both addiction and anxiety issues are very personal and sensitive subjects. Knowing how to approach a loved one is key to the outcome of the conversation.
Here are a few tips on how to approach a loved one regarding drug treatment and emotional assistance:

  • Taking a compassionate, non-judgmental approach is always the best option.
  • Be prepared for some initial denial or defensive response.
  • Anxiety disorders can cause paranoid thinking which can make communication more challenging.
  • Remind them that both anxiety disorders and drug abuse are treatable conditions and do not need to be life sentences.
  • Be prepared! Suggest assistance from qualified professionals and specific recovery resources.
  • Offer practical assistance as well as emotional support.
  • Finally, always, reassure your loved one that you care and that you are concerned.  Your legitimate feeling and intentions are your best tool in helping someone you care.
  • There is little doubt that addictions and anxiety go hand in hand. Part of recovery is finding a balance in life, and that includes learning to deal with the anxiety that comes with sober living. It might be the key to living free of both overwhelming anxiety and addiction.


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