The Surprising Connection Between Anxiety and Addiction

connection between anxiety and addiction

Can anxiety lead to drug addiction? Can anxiety lead to alcohol addiction? Yes, states the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. People with anxiety and depression are two to three times more likely to become addicts than the general population.

mood disorder chart

About 20 percent of people with an addiction have what’s called a mood disorder, which includes anxiety and depression. People with generalized anxiety disorder have a 30 to 35 percent chance of alcohol abuse and dependency, while they also have a 25 to 30 percent prevalence of drug abuse.

What’s going on in these statistics is a lot more complex than merely feeling a little nervous and drinking too much to cope with it. The complex symphony of brain chemicals known as neurotransmitters contributes to anxiety, and anxiety’s dark cousin, depression.

Addiction can make anxiety and depression symptoms worse, which leads to further substance abuse, or people can feel anxious and reach for alcohol or drugs to self-medicate. There’s definitely a strong relationship between anxiety and addiction.

Anxiety’s Many Faces

Anxiety and depression are categorized as mood disorders. The Mayo Clinic defines a mood disorder as an emotional state in which one’s mood is inconsistent with life circumstances. For instance, you feel sad and depressed even though the sun is shining, your health is good and your job is fine. There’s no identifiable reason for feeling depressed — your mood simply doesn’t match your circumstances.

anxiety disorder symptoms

Anxiety disorders include:

  • Panic attacks: A panic attack is a sudden acute, and often frightening, feeling of intense panic and anxiety. People suffering from panic attacks may experience them in certain situations, such as a crowded room, or they may get them without warning. Symptoms of panic attacks can mimic a heart attack and may send people to the emergency room thinking they have a heart problem.
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): Generalized anxiety disorder is characterized by feelings of intense worry, fear and anxiety, often without a specific cause. People with GAD always expect disaster around every corner despite indications to the contrary. They can’t relax because they’re always worrying.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Post-traumatic stress disorder is a condition in which people re-experience deeply stressful or traumatic events. Most people are familiar with veteran’s tales of PTSD in which soldiers relive horrifying experiences of war, but anyone can get PTSD after a traumatic event such as a car accident, rape or abusive situation.
  • Social or situational anxiety: Social or situational anxiety is a strong feeling of anxiety in a specific situation or at a social event. Some people with this form of anxiety are fine most of the time, but when they enter into a social event such as a party, they feel such intense anxiety that it can trigger panic attacks.

Anxiety and depression often go together, so doctors typically look for both when clients report symptoms of one or the other. In one study, 85 percent of people suffering from depression also suffered from an anxiety disorder. It’s so common that doctors refer to them as the “fraternal twins” of mood disorders.

No one knows the exact cause of anxiety disorders. Although PTSD has a specific event that triggers the problem, it’s still a mystery why some people experience post-traumatic stress disorder and others in the same situation do not. Researchers’ best guess is that imbalanced neurotransmitters or brain chemicals trigger anxiety attacks.

Can Anxiety Lead to Alcohol Addiction?

can anxiety lead to alcohol addiction

Neurotransmitters are also involved in alcoholism, so both tend to frequently occur with anxiety disorders. People with acute anxiety disorders often try to self-medicate with substances, but their actions backfire.

The connection between anxiety and addiction may be caused by:

  • Attempts to cope with anxious feelings: Alcohol can create a temporary and artificial feeling of peace, tranquility and relaxation. Doctors speculate that many people with anxiety disorders reach for such substances to quell their overall anxious feelings.
  • Changing brain chemistry: Although researchers haven’t clearly identified the exact mechanism that triggers anxiety and panic attacks, evidence suggests that a misalignment between available serotonin, a powerful brain chemical, and serotonin update areas in the brain. Additional brain chemicals including dopamine and norepinephrine may be involved.
  • Relief from social anxiety: Social situations often include alcohol, and people with social anxiety only feel severe anxiety during social events. It’s easy for some to reach for a drink to relieve anxious feelings. Over time, such people may rely upon alcohol to get through social events.
  • Rebound effects from drinking: Alcohol is a depressant, as are many commonly abused drugs. When they wear off, people can feel even more anxious, which leads to ingesting more of the addictive substance. Anxiety, alcohol and drug addiction become intertwined in a vicious cycle that continues until they enter treatment.

Can Anxiety Lead to Drug Addiction?

can alcohol lead to drug addiction

Just as some people with anxiety disorders turn to alcohol to feel more relaxed and confident, some people turn to drugs for the same reason. Psychiatric Times reports the story of “Mitchell,” a man who began smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol excessively to deal with his feeling of anxiety, loneliness and withdrawal from society.

Mitchell reports that when he experiences severe anxiety he gets panic attacks, and then turns to both marijuana and alcohol for relief. Because of his severe anxiety, he can’t sleep and takes other drugs to help him do so. The author of the article notes that this example is one of the most common paths seen among psychiatrists: a patient with anxiety turns to drugs and alcohol for relief, only to find themselves with an anxiety disorder and a substance use disorder.

Yes, anxiety can lead to drug addiction just as surely as it can lead to alcohol addiction. In both instances, the pathway from mood disorder to substance abuse disorder is fairly clear. When people try to stop drinking or stop taking drugs on their own, they have trouble quitting because the drugs do offer some relief, albeit temporary and poorly moderated.

Other Relationships Between Anxiety and Addiction

The problem that Mitchell and others like him experience when they try to self-medicate anxiety with drugs or alcohol is that an increasing amount is needed to feel the same level of relief. Tolerance develops — and with it comes substance abuse.

Additionally, any time most people like Mitchell try to stop drinking or taking drugs on their own, they experience extreme anxiety. It occurs due to:

• The physical changes in brain chemistry that occur when a substance is withdrawn
• Feeling the original anxiety that was masked by drugs or alcohol

The brain adapts during substance abuse by changing the levels of both neurotransmitters and receptor sites. When someone stops taking drugs or alcohol, there’s a brief period of time in which the levels of neurotransmitters aren’t in balance. This makes people feel sick or anxious. When you’re already suffering from acute anxiety, the feelings from both withdrawal and a mood disorder can feel overwhelming.

Dual Diagnosis in Substance Abuse Treatment

dual diagnosis

You may hear the term dual diagnosis in reference to addiction and recovery. Dual diagnosis refers to a diagnosis of both substance abuse disorder — which is an addiction to drugs or alcohol — and a mood disorder such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder or another mental illness.


Clients receiving a dual diagnosis often find that they first need treatment for their underlying mood disorder in order to complete recovery. Treatment facilities that offer treatment for both mood disorders and substance abuse can offer a stronger lifeline to clients who receive a dual diagnosis because they’re experienced at helping people recover from both.

Effective Anxiety Treatments

effective anxiety treatment

You don’t have to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol to relieve anxiety. Doctors can prescribe medications that help with symptoms of panic attacks, PTSD, generalized anxiety, social anxiety and depression. These medicines, called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), act upon the serotonin recycling system in the brain. They help your body produce more serotonin or use existing serotonin more efficiently. Although some take a few weeks to months to feel the full effect, they offer a safe, effective method of treating anxiety and depression.

Many people are afraid to take SSRI medications because they fear their personalities will change. Drugs and alcohol also change your personality when you’re under the influence! The good news is that SSRI medications aren’t sedating, habit-forming or mood-altering. In fact, after a few months on an SSRI medicine, you may finally look in the mirror and say, “I feel like my old self!”

Two SSRI medicines have been studied in people with drug and alcohol addiction. While your physician will prescribe the appropriate medication for your health condition and symptoms, it may be worthwhile to note these medicines:

  • Paroxetine (Paxil): Patients improved in both their anxiety levels and decreased alcohol use.
  • Sertraline (Zoloft): In one study, 94 patients with both PTSD and alcohol abuse were either given Zoloft or a placebo. Although improvements were not demonstrated during the study, follow-up revealed that participants decreased their alcohol use voluntarily if they continued taking Zoloft.

Other medications have shown promise for people with both anxiety and certain substance abuse disorders:

  • Buspirone (BuSpar): In a 12-week, random, double-blind placebo-controlled study of 61 people with both alcohol addiction and high anxiety levels, this medication reduced anxiety, improved treatment outcomes and reduced return to heavy drinking among participants.
  • Topiramate (Topamax): This medication has shown promise in treating alcohol and cocaine addiction, as well as PTSD.
  • Tiagabine (Gabitril): In addition to decreasing cocaine use, this medicine has been useful at treating anxiety disorders.

No medication alone, however, can cure an alcohol or drug addiction. Medication may be useful to assuage anxiety disorder symptoms, but it must be used in conjunction with therapy, 12-step recovery programs and other therapeutic interventions to help people recover from drug and alcohol abuse. Therapy combined with medication is also considered one of the best treatment options for anxiety, too.

Healthy Living for Those with Anxiety and Substance Abuse Disorder

Although treatment for substance abuse and anxiety disorder is essential, it’s more than therapy, medication and 12-step meetings that contribute to a full recovery. Healthy living for those with a dual diagnosis includes learning how to eat properly, getting plenty of exercise and developing healthy routines for life.

healthy living with anxiety

Many people suffering from substance abuse disorders neglect their physical health. They eat poorly, skip meals and don’t get enough of certain nutrients. The body also uses up certain vitamins to process alcohol, and alcoholics can be deficient in B vitamins, especially thiamine.

Both substance abuse disorders and anxiety disorders can be helped by a healthy diet. People with anxiety disorders should eat complex carbohydrates, a little protein with every meal including breakfast, and drink plenty of water. Limiting caffeine not only improves sleep quality but also decreases anxiety.

Studies have shown that exercise relieves stress, releases endorphins, and improves mood. A 10-minute walk outdoors every day can provide hours of benefits to your mood, helping to relieve anxiety and make you feel better. Finding physical activity that you enjoy and can participate in regularly is a great benefit to your overall treatment program for both anxiety and addiction.


Treatment for Addiction and Anxiety

treatment for addiction and anxiety

No matter the cause of your alcohol or drug addiction, you need treatment to recover and regain your health and wellbeing.

Treatment for anxiety and drug addiction typically begins with admission into a treatment facility. During withdrawal from the abused substances, additional anti-anxiety medication may be prescribed to offset any rebound anxiety. For many people these medications, when prescribed by a physician and used according to direction, offer effective relief from anxiety disorders.

Part of recovery when you have a dual diagnosis of both substance abuse disorder and anxiety is learning how to cope with the symptoms of both. Holistic treatment programs, which treat the entire person, can help you cope with cravings, deal with anxiety and learn how to live a purposeful, healthy life.

Cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to be effective at treating people with substance abuse disorder and anxiety disorder. In cognitive behavior therapy, clients work with a therapist to identify troublesome thought patterns. Such thought patterns may precipitate a panic attack, or they may trigger an urge to binge drink or take drugs. With cognitive behavioral therapy, you can learn techniques to deal more effectively with problems.

Life Begins Again at Voyage: Treatment for Anxiety and Drug Addiction

You don’t have to let anxiety disorders, substance abuse and alcoholism control your life. Help is available at Voyage, part of the JourneyPure family.

Voyage, located in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, offers treatment for anxiety, depression, drug addiction, alcohol addiction, eating disorders, love addiction and other problems. This women-only facility offers a holistic approach to recovery that provides individualized attention and treatment.

You’re not alone. The Voyage family is here to help you recover and regain your life. For more information, call us any time, day or night, at (615) 939-9294.

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