The Relationship Between
Unhealthy Stress and
Substance Abuse

Woman with hand on her head suffering from stress
Stress is something that’s normal to experience at various points over the course of a lifetime, but everyone has their own ways of processing stress, and not all stress is created equal. There are “healthy” and “unhealthy” sources of stress, and as it turns out, this distinction can be critical.

For a person with a history of using substances, unhealthy stress can lead to a greater potential for addiction or relapse. Read on to learn about different types of stress, how they can interact with substance abuse and addiction, and how Roots Recovery can help.

The Difference Between Healthy & Unhealthy Stress

There’s no way to eliminate every single source of stress in our lives. But what we can do is identify what stressors we’re experiencing, categorize them, and evaluate them.

It’s important to know that not all stress is bad! Some stress is short-term, such as upcoming events to plan for, and can be healthy. It keeps us motivated to do new things and live our lives.

Healthy stress is then something that we can process as it comes and goes. It helps us make the push to meet a deadline and then let it fall away into the past, taking weight off our shoulders and allowing us to feel good about keeping up with responsibilities in life.

However, sometimes these stressors can build and compound on top of one another to become more severe and difficult to handle. You can also experience long-term or “chronic” stress, brought on by serious life events like financial insecurity, divorce, the loss of a loved one, or the birth of a child. Even something that seems positive like getting married or getting a new job can be stressful, because of the changes and pressure these events can add to your life.

This unhealthy stress is going to take a lot more of your time, energy, and emotions to process. These longer-term stressors require more focus over a longer period of time, and regular attention if you’re going to be able to live your life in a healthy way.

Connecting Unhealthy Stress & Substance Abuse

Unfortunately, it’s all too common to see the added stresses of daily life accumulate and become more and more difficult to bear.
For some people, a short-term fix might be turning to a glass of beer or wine, which tends to provide a release of endorphins. But if this becomes a regular source of stress relief, it will take more and more alcohol to provide that same feeling, and lead to an unhealthy dependence.

But by looking to alcohol or another substance to remove thoughts of whatever is causing your unhealthy stress, you’re not actually dealing with the stress itself. It still exists after you come down from your high.

Over time, your brain may start to connect the temporary stress relief with the substance. Studies have shown that when under stress, people with addiction issues don’t have as much of a response to stress in their brains; instead, the part of their brain that craves their substance of choice activates instead. [1] This means that it’s important to seek out professional help early if you notice yourself or a loved one turning to drugs or alcohol in the presence of stressors.

What You Can Do About Stress

Patient and a therapist talking about dealing with unhealthy stress at Roots Recovery

There are ways to help deal with stress that are healthy for you. Plenty of “self-care guides” suggest that doing things like taking a full spa day will help you relax and forget about what is stressing you out, and while this may help, it doesn’t do anything about the underlying causes of your stress, and it doesn’t address the connection between unhealthy stress and substance abuse.

A good first step is seeking out a therapist who can listen objectively to you and provide some stress management or coping mechanisms. They may help you discover some new angles from which to examine your stressors. While there are a great many stress management techniques, each person is unique and so is each situation, so there can’t be a single cure-all for every issue.

However, if you get the sense that your stressors and substance abuse are very closely related — or feel that you are on the cusp of becoming addicted to a substance due to stressors — it’s time to seek help from professionals who understand the links between the two.

Patient and a therapist talking about dealing with unhealthy stress at Roots Recovery

Helping with Stress and Addiction
at Roots Recovery

Here at Roots Recovery, our helpful, patient, and understanding staff know how important managing stressors is to maintaining your sobriety. Life will always present new challenges, but we want you to be prepared for them and handle them well: in addition to evidence-based and holistic therapies, we offer life skills workshops to give clients tools to cope with sources of stress they might face in recovery.

If stress has forced you to develop unhealthy habits with alcohol or drugs, reach out to learn more about how Roots Recovery can help.