Anxiety and Addiction

Table of Contents


Anxiety and addiction are both widespread in the United States.

ADAA (Anxiety and Depression Association of America) reports that 40 million adults are affected by anxiety in any given year. Data from SAMHSA’s NSDUH 2020 – the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health – shows that 40 million people have substance use disorder and 28.5 million have alcohol use disorder.

We want to help

Let’s setup a call and figure out the best treatment options for you or your loved one. Our detox specialists will get back to you immediately.

Not only are addiction and anxiety commonplace. According to ADDA data, 20% of those with an anxiety disorder or another mood disorder have a dual diagnosis involving a co-occurring substance use disorder (drug addiction) or alcohol use disorder (alcoholism). 

Those diagnosed with GAD (generalized anxiety disorder) often self-medicate the symptoms with alcohol, prescription medications, or illicit drugs. This will not address the underpinning anxiety. Over time, self-medication can inflame the symptoms of anxiety, while at the same time introducing another problem in the form of substance abuse. 

Some people with existing anxiety disorders find that substance abuse exacerbates the symptoms. Others find that abusing alcohol or drugs subsequently triggers episodes of anxiety. 

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental health disorder in the United States. Central to most anxiety disorders is irrational worry and fear persisting for six months or more. 

There are several types of anxiety disorder as follows: 

  • GAD (generalized anxiety disorder): GAD triggers recurrent symptoms of worrying that result in tension and stress despite no apparent underlying cause.
  • Social anxiety disorder: Social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia, involves feelings of intense anxiety and self-consciousness in response to social situations.
  •  PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder): PTSD sometimes occurs after an individual witnesses or experiences a traumatic event. PTSD symptoms can be distressing and disruptive, causing many people to self-medicate those symptoms with addictive substances.
  • OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder): OCD is characterized by recurring unwanted thoughts (obsessions) that often trigger rituals or repetitive behaviors such as hand washing (compulsions). These rituals provide fleeting relief from the obsessive thoughts.
  • Panic disorder: Panic disorder triggers extreme fear and physical symptoms like heavy breathing, dizziness, and increased heart rate.
An image of an individual going through addiction and anxiety, often these two go hand-in-hand

What Is Addiction?

NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse) defines addiction as a chronic, relapsing brain disorder

Alcoholism and drug addiction are non-clinical descriptors for alcohol use disorder and substance use disorder. All forms of substance use disorder are diagnosed using the criteria in APA’s DSM-5-TR. DSM-5-TR is the latest edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by APA (American Psychological Association) and considered the benchmark diagnostic tool for addictions and mental health conditions. 

Addictions are diagnosed according to the number of the eleven diagnostic criteria that present as follows: 

  • Mild addiction: 2 or 3 symptoms
  • Moderate addiction: 4 or 5 symptoms
  • Severe addiction: 6 or more symptoms

All addictions are characterized by compulsive drug-seeking and drug-taking behaviors despite obviously negative outcomes.

There is no cure for substance use disorder and there are high relapse rates of up to 60%. That said, most addictions respond positively to a combination of MAT (medication-assisted treatment), counseling, and psychotherapy. 

What Causes Addiction and Anxiety?

Your risk profile for anxiety disorders and substance use disorders depends on many factors, including: 

  • Genetics
  • Environmental cues
  • Psychological factors

Most people who have an anxiety disorder respond to stress in an unhealthy and disproportionate way. This if often due to genetic reasons beyond their control. The area of the brain charged with processing fear is acutely sensitive in those suffering from anxiety disorders. 

Additionally, evidence suggests there is a link between feelings of anxiety or depression and brain neurotransmitters – chemical messengers – like cortisol and serotonin. ­ 

Of all contributory factors to addiction and mental health disorders, family history and genetics are perhaps the most important. Around 40% of people with GAD and 50% of people with panic disorder have some family history of these conditions, according to this study

Beyond this, substance abuse can sometimes trigger the development of anxiety disorders. This phenomenon is known as substance-induced anxiety disorder.

Both age and gender can also influence your risk of developing an anxiety disorder. Research shows that twice as many women as men are diagnosed with anxiety disorders, according to research. 

The symptoms of OCD, separation anxiety, and phobias typically first develop in youth or adolescence. The symptoms of panic disorder and social anxiety disorder usually manifest during the teenage years. 

When generalized anxiety disorder and substance use disorder co-occurs, the most abused substances are as follows: 

  • Alcohol
  • Opioids
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Cocaine
  • Marijuana
  • Stimulants

Anxiety and Addiction

An anxiety disorder usually involves symptoms that are distressing and disruptive in isolation. If addiction co-occurs with anxiety, this makes for a troubling combination. 

Anxiety is a condition that impacts the CNS (central nervous system), leading to increased blood flow, accelerated heart rate, and intense neural activity. 

The symptoms of anxiety are often treated with the short-term use of benzodiazepines. Regrettably, benzos have a strong potential for abuse and addiction. Alcohol, like benzos, is a depressant of the CNS, so many people looking to self-medicate anxiety seek out alcohol for these soothing properties. 

Self-medicating the symptoms of anxiety with alcohol or drugs is particularly common among those with undiagnosed anxiety disorders. 

Even though anxiety and addiction frequently co-occur, you can fight back against both conditions with the right dual diagnosis treatment.

Anxiety and Addiction Recovery

ADAA states that anxiety is treatable with the following combination of therapies: 

  • Anti-anxiety medications
  • Psychotherapy
  • Behavioral interventions 

Some anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants used to treat anxiety disorders include: 

  • Xanax
  • Buspar
  • Zoloft
  • Pristiq
  • Lexapro
  • Celexa
  • Lexapro

All these medications can be used safely long-term except for Xanax and other benzodiazepines. 

One of the most effective forms of psychotherapy for treating both addictions and anxiety disorders is CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy). A psychotherapist will help you to identify your triggers for unhealthy behaviors and substance abuse. The therapist will also guide you to create healthier coping strategies.

image of woman on beach representing phases of recovery

Anxiety and Addiction Recovery at California Detox

Here at California Detox, our dual diagnosis treatment programs will help you tackle your substance use disorder or alcohol use disorder at the same time as your underpinning anxiety disorder. 

We provide treatment programs at all levels of intensity as follows: 

  • Inpatient rehab
  • Outpatient rehab
  • IOP (intensive outpatient program)
  • PHP (partial hospitalization program)
  • Virtual IOP (remote rehab)

Whatever type of treatment program best suits your needs, you will have access to an evidence-based array of MAT, psychotherapy, and counseling to help you beat the demons of addiction and anxiety that are holding you back.

Reach out to admissions today for immediate help by calling 949.567.8790


Anxiety can be a precursor to addiction in that many people will use substances like drugs and alcohol to get temporary relief from their anxiety. Unfortunately, it is not a long-term solution and many people will continue to turn to these substances time and time again, leading to a build-up of tolerance and the development of addiction.
Like many other types of mental illness, anxiety can lead to addiction and vice versa. Luckily, there are solutions available, like dual diagnosis treatment that attacks both problems simultaneously.


Request a Call