Anxious Addicts: The Relationship Between Anxiety and Addiction

anxious woman biting her nails

Anxious Addicts: The Relationship Between Anxiety and Addiction

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anxious woman biting her nails

Almost everyone at some point in their lives struggles with a form of anxiety. Feelings produced from anxiety can be misleading and are perpetuated by reinforcing thoughts. Most people do not recognize that they are anxious until they feel the physical symptoms of anxiety. Substance abuse is a quick remedy for uncomfortable feelings produced by anxiety. An addict who suffers from anxiety will often be reluctant to enter substance abuse treatment, fearful that his or her anxiety issue will not be addressed.

Anxiety Characteristics, Thoughts, Feelings, and Behaviors

Anxiety consists of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Thoughts will perpetuate feelings which create a behavioral response in an individual. Anxiety is rooted in fear and not wanting to feel fearful creates an intense distressed behavioral response. An addict who suffers from anxiety will use substances to escape from feeling anxious. Addicts who also struggle with anxiety will appear irritable, pre-occupied and apprehensive. Four common characteristics of anxiety found in an individual are:

  1. The excessive need for control.
  2. Ignoring psychological and physical signs of stress.
  3. The excessive need for approval.
  4. Perfectionism.

These characteristics are an individual’s belief system which perpetuates anxiety. Thoughts that are identified as should, would or could statements reinforce the belief system of the addict. These statements reflect thinking in the past and desire to change the chain of events. Example statements are:

  • I should have not gone to that party and had sex with that guy. I’m so dumb.
  • I could have set an alarm last night, before I started drinking, to wake me up for school. I’m so stupid.
  • It would have been better if I didn’t spend the holidays with my parents. They drive me to use drugs.”

Other anxiety-related thoughts are based on future events and create frequent worrying or obsessing. For example “If I get this job then I will stop using drugs.” Focusing on events that we cannot change (past) or that are not in our control (future) increases anxiety symptoms. This disturbance of mood contributes to the addict’s desire to escape through substance abuse.

Anxiety Symptoms and Addiction

Anxiety produces strong intense reactions within the body and mind. Anxiety responses are not always recognizable and may go untreated. Anxiety will manifest in two ways, physical and psychological. For more information about the psychological and physical symptoms of anxiety please see our anxiety and addiction page.

The physical and psychological symptoms of anxiety are similar to withdrawal symptoms from drugs and alcohol. An addict will automatically look for substances to calm an anxious state. The avoidance of uncomfortable physical agitation and painful emotions are some of the components that maintain addiction and anxiety. Both anxiety and addiction will become stronger the more the addict continues using drugs and/or alcohol. Addiction enables the addict to avoid confronting and challenging anxious thoughts and feelings.

Substance abuse masks anxious feelings preventing the addict from recieving proper treatment for anxiety.

 Exercises for Decreasing Anxiety

Self-help techniques for mild anxiety management are:

  • Stay in the present. Don’t get stuck thinking about the past or future.
  • Recognize what you can control versus what you cannot.
  • Learn to be aware of your stress and incorporate relaxation exercises.
  • Don’t be so critical of yourself. Mistakes are not failures and nobody is perfect.

While these exercises are helpful, anxiety is made worse with drug and alcohol abuse. An addict that suffers from addiction and anxiety may not be able to resolve anxiety issues alone.

Anxiety and Substance Abuse Treatment

The treatment for anxiety and addiction is referred to as dual diagnosis. A compressive substance abuse treatment program will have a dual diagnosis track that will address both issues simultaneously. Addiction treatment should have a multidisciplinary team of doctors, nurses, therapists and behavioral technicians who will be able to support the addict through the detox and treatment process.

When an addict goes through alcohol and/or drug detox he or she will inevitably have an increased amount of anxiety. Because of this, an addict will either avoid withdrawal symptoms by continuing use or be at high risk for relapse after detox. Due to the similarity of drug and alcohol withdrawal symptoms and anxiety symptoms, both need to be treated at the same time. It is ideal to find an addiction treatment facility that encompasses alcohol and/or drug detox and a substance abuse treatment program under the same roof.