The Relationship between Anxiety and Addiction

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is an emotion, expressed through a sense of uneasiness before an important event, usually with unexpected outcomes such as a job interview, a test. Anxiety is therefore the body’s reaction to stressful, dangerous or unfamiliar situations. In normal levels, anxiety is a healthy feeling, as it helps us prepare for unknown situations by staying alert and aware.   

However, people suffering from an anxiety disorder experience high levels of anxiety, which can be overwhelming and debilitating to the point of interfering with the person’s ability to lead a normal functioning life. Anxiety disorders are a type of mental illness that keeps people from sleeping, focusing on daily activities, socialising. This is due to the person feeling constant, irrational worry and disproportionate fear. This disorder can become uncontrollable, as it leads to serious physical and psychological effects.  

What are the Symptoms of Anxiety?

They key psychological warning signs and symptoms of anxiety are:

  • Uncontrollable, irrational feelings of worry and fear – that recurs for six months or more

  • Sensations of panic and uneasiness for no apparent reason

  • Trouble concentrating

  • A decline in social relationships, job performance, social activities, or overall satisfaction with life

  • Repeated failed attempts to resolve one’s fears

  • Substance misuse, self-medication or other compulsive behaviors such as overeating as a way of managing anxiety symptoms.

However, the body has strong physical reactions to the psychological symptoms of anxiety or to the objects or situations that cause anxiety in the first place. These physical responses include:

  • Trouble sleeping or insomnia

  • Heart palpitations

  • Chest pain

  • Choking sensations

  • Shortness of breath or rapid breathing

  • Muscle tension

  • Trembling

  • Inability to remain calm

  • Stomach pain

  • Headaches

  • Nausea

  • Fatigue

  • Rapid breathing, or hyperventilation

  • Sweating

  • Dry mouth

  • Dizziness

  • Cold or sweaty hands and feet

  • Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet

Types of Anxiety Disorders

Most people experience short episodes of anxiety on and off throughout their life, but those who suffer from clinically diagnosed anxiety feel its consequences on a daily basis.

There are four different categories of anxiety disorders: panic disorders, generalised anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, social phobia or social anxiety disorder, phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The most commonly diagnosed category is generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). This affects about 6% of the population, twice as many women as it does men. GAD often co-occurs with other disorders such as depression or substance abuse.

For people who suffer from GAD, anxiety becomes chronic: their life is filled with worry and tension, anticipating the worst outcome for any situation (health, work, family, money, the world); they cannot stop worrying even when they know their subject of worry does not warrant it; their triggers of anxiety and worry are often hard to define.

People with GAD are functioning individuals, they go on about their day seemingly normal, but their interior life and thought patterns are chaotic inside. They find it very hard to relax, to focus and they often feel frustrated all the time.

Potential Causes of Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety is not a weakness or personal fault. Anxiety usually stems from a number of different causes. Each individual case is different, and there is rarely only one cause. Anxiety disorders develop from the contribution of several factors like:

  • Family history of anxiety or other mental health issues

  • History of trauma, such as child abuse or exposure to violence, increases the risk of developing an anxiety-related condition.

  • Substance abuse: alcohol, drugs or prescription medication misuse can cause changes in the brain chemistry that may trigger or intensify anxiety.

  • Chemical imbalances and side effects of certain medications

  • Long-lasting stress: such as executive burnout.

  • Incidence of other mental health disorders: Pre-existing psychiatric disorders (e.g: depression) makes people more likely to suffer from an anxiety disorder.

People with a diagnosed anxiety disorder should try to understand and identify their anxiety triggers – both the physical and emotional symptoms associated with the onset of an anxiety episode so that in therapy they can develop effective coping strategies to deal with these.

What is the Relationship between Anxiety and Addiction?

It is common for people who suffer from anxiety to self-medicate or misuse alcohol or drugs in an attempt to find a way to copy with their symptoms. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that individuals with anxiety are twice as likely to suffer from substance abuse as the general population.

Furthermore, substance abuse is more common in people suffering from anxiety disorders than in the general population. According to Psychiatric Times, anxiety disorders have been linked with higher lifetime rates of alcohol abuse and higher relapse rates after alcohol rehab. In addition, individuals diagnosed with anxiety may experience more severe withdrawal symptoms.

Alcohol or drugs abuse enhances the effects of anxiety. The person gets caught in a vicious circle: once they use more alcohol or drugs, the physical and psychological symptoms of anxiety strengthen, which makes them increase their drug intake to function normally. This results in developing tolerance to the drug and ultimately a cycle of substance abuse that leads to physical dependency and addiction.

Dual Diagnosis: Anxiety and Addiction

Dual diagnosis (or co-occurring disorders) is the medical term that describes the existence of a diagnosis of an addictive disorder such as alcoholism, drug addiction or gambling with an anxiety disorder or other type of mental health issue.

Some common factors in the dual-diagnosis of anxiety and addiction, whereby anxiety triggers substance misuse or vice versa – are:

  • Self-medicating: Individuals with anxiety disorders often turn to alcohol or drugs in an effort to control their physical or psychological symptoms. (e.g: a manager with social anxiety disorder may use alcohol to cope with stressful presentations or business meetings.)

  • Effects of substance abuse or withdrawal: Alcohol and drug misuse often causes effects that resemble anxiety (nervousness, agitation, sleeplessness, fear). Similarly, some common symptoms of alcohol or drugs withdrawal include anxiety, restlessness, and sleep disturbances.

  • Biochemical factors: Both anxiety disorders and substance use disorders are linked to chemical imbalances in the brain. For example, low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin have been linked with both alcoholism and mental illness.

  • Genetic predisposition: There is evidence that people who are prone to anxiety may also be prone to addiction if there is a family history of both conditions.

Contact Us for Treating Anxiety and Addiction Problems

If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol or drug abuse, while also experiencing anxiety symptoms, we recommend specialised dual-diagnosis treatment. Contact us for more information on how to access our rehab programme, which addresses co-occurring illnesses like anxiety.

Read more about how we treat anxiety and addiction within our specialised rehab programme at Castle Craig.