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Are People with Anxiety More Likely to Abuse Dangerous Substances?

There are various types of anxiety disorders which makes up America’s most common mental illness. Studies show that 18% of adults in the U.S. suffer from chronic anxiety of some sort. Of those suffering from anxiety disorders, 20% abuse substances. It has been shown that there is a strong connection between anxiety and abusing dangerous substances. If you have an anxiety disorder, you are two times more at risk to abuse substances. Anxiety is treatable but many won’t receive the treatment they need. Instead, they’re more apt to numb the anxiety with the substances available. Co-occurrence is a vicious cycle that affects many suffering from both addiction and anxiety. The symptoms of one disorder can worsen symptoms of the other disorder. Anxiety disorders are considered a cause of substance abuse in some cases. The person with anxiety tries to alleviate symptoms with substances. Those with anxiety disorders often find that the substance abuse worsens their anxiety.

Common Types of Anxiety

  • Acute stress disorder
  • General anxiety disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Post traumatic stress
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Agoraphobia
  • Other phobias

Numbing Anxiety Through Substance Abuse

The following substances become dangerous when used to numb anxiety to help you get through the day.

  • Alcohol
  • Prescription drugs
  • Illicit drugs
  • Marijuana
  • CNS depressants like benzodiazepines or barbiturates

The Cycle of Anxiety and Abusing Dangerous Substances

Many of the substances may offer a temporary calming effect for someone with anxiety. The problem is, when you abuse substances, it leads to physical and mental dysfunction. This can in turn, cause more stress. When you try to withdraw from alcohol or depressant drugs, it can quickly trigger rebound anxiety. When this happens, someone with anxiety is more likely to abuse the substance again. Psychiatric research over the years supports the strong connection between anxiety disorders and substance abuse disorders. A part of addiction is the personality disorder behaviors that tend to come with it. Your fight or flight system is connected to mood, your memory, anger, and addiction. The self-treatment of anxiety with substances offer temporary relief. This becomes a cycle because anxiety gets worse which makes you abuse substance more. For someone who has always suffered from anxiety, addiction starts by having a few drinks, downers, and smoking cigarettes. The brain then builds receptors that require substances to remain calm. On top of that, a tolerance develops so you need even more of the substances to stay calm. This all equates to severe substance abuse which can become addiction.

Anti-Anxiety Medication and Substance Abuse

In the psychiatry field, benzodiazepines are used to treat anxiety disorder. The problem is there’s no controlling what the anxious person takes the drugs with. It’s common for someone with anxiety to down their prescribed medication like Ativan with a glass of wine. This creates a deep sense of calm and can become an addictive feeling. There is a high possibility that the person with anxiety is an alcoholic. Alcohol abuse is dangerous for many reasons but in this case, it affects the benzodiazepine complex, giving it an agonist reaction. As alcohol also offers a calming effect for someone with an anxiety disorder, it is a means of self-medication. Within the medical field, combining benzodiazepines and alcohol is expected if the person doesn’t abstain fully from alcohol. When used alone, benzodiazepines will not usually cause an overdose. However, when paired with alcohol or opioids, the combination creates increase effects of both drugs. Generally, addicts will mix alcohol and benzodiazepines which increases toxicity. This can lead to a fatal overdose.

Opioid Abuse and Anxiety Disorders

A study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health recently found that there is a specific group of anxiety patients that are susceptible to prescription opioid addiction. Those with bipolar, panic disorder and depressive disorders have a high association with prescription opioid use. Prescription opioids like oxycontin are a common treatment for pain but non-medical use has increased says SAMHSA. Prescription opioids are the most widely used illegal drug in the U.S. after marijuana. They are highly addictive and long-term use can cause changes in the brain. Researchers have looked at the connection between those with anxiety disorders using opioid drugs for non-medical reasons. Researchers found that 20% of those with anxiety disorders also abuse substance. Even worse, for those who have gone through something traumatic, there is an addiction rate of 50%.

Social Anxiety Disorder

Co-occurrence between substance abuse and people with social anxiety disorder is common. This is especially true when it comes to alcohol abuse. People with social anxiety have stated that it makes them feel less stressed out in social situations. It’s been proven that alcohol abuse usually follows once someone reports this disorder. Tension and fear are some of the symptoms that can prevent those with social anxiety from living a normal life. It’s challenging to keep a job or make friends so to do so, they will often self-medicate. Abusing alcohol is an attempt to manage social situations or numb emotional pain. For those with social anxiety, there is a deep fear that they will do something humiliating. Drinking can cause people to make mistakes in public. Whether it’s fumbling, saying something awkward, or causing a scene, alcohol can cause situations to occur that the person feared in the first place. This can cause further discomfort in social situations.

Alcohol and General Anxiety Disorder

For those with general anxiety disorder, it can be difficult to cope with stress. Those with demanding jobs for example, have a hard time relaxing due to anxiety. It becomes easy for those with generalized anxiety to abuse alcohol. Using alcohol to calm nerves for anxiety can very quickly lead to alcoholism. You put yourself at risk of entering a cycle with anxiety and alcohol addiction. Those with anxiety disorders feel as though drinking lowers inhibitions and rids their tension. Alcohol is a depressant so it has adverse effects on the nervous system. This can cause greater anxiety which of course causes further substance abuse. Alcohol abuse also raises the levels of your adrenaline in the body which heightens anxiety. It increases blood pressure and the heart rate which again, heightens anxiety levels.

Post Traumatic Stress and Self-Medication

For people who are suffering from post traumatic stress, there are high rates of self-medicating. About 20% of people with PTSD will also self-medicate. Men are more likely to self-medicate than women. People with borderline personality disorders from PTSD are most likely to self-medicate with illicit drugs or misuse prescription medications. Furthermore, those self-medicating for their mental disorder had a higher rate of suicide attempts. Self-medication among patients with PTSD is common but hazardous. The very nature of addiction partially stems from the state of someone’s mind. A high percentage of addicts started abusing substances because they wanted to hide from their emotions and alleviate symptoms. The additional factor of chronic anxiety puts them at greater risk of numbing their nervous system. Due to the cycle of numbing, and experiencing greater anxiety, those with anxiety disorders are more likely to abuse substances. Those with chronic anxiety are two to three times more likely to have a substance abuse disorder compared to the rest of the population. The studies done within the psychological sector prove this point. They have found that up to 20% of people with anxiety will abuse substances. Those who do suffer from anxiety disorders will find that their anxiety becomes worse with substance abuse. Many people with anxiety won’t seek out help so they self-medicate for years. This cycle can easily become addiction as tolerance gets higher. If you are experiencing this cycle yourself or believe a loved one is going through something similar, an intervention may be necessary.


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