Stress and Addiction

Table of Contents


Stress and addiction are closely interrelated without one necessarily causing the other.

Research shows that stress is a significant risk factor for:

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  • Initiation of addiction
  • Maintenance of addiction
  • Relapse in recovery
  • Treatment failure

When stressful life events coincide with poor coping skills, this can increase the risk of addiction by triggering self-medication and by increasing impulsive responses like substance abuse.

The Relationship Between Stress and Addiction

Stress is an umbrella term that refers to hardship or adversity like grief and poverty. 

Stressful life events trigger a biological response in the form of increased blood levels of cortisol and other stress hormones. The fight or flight response is an automatic reaction that involves blood going to your muscles so you are primed for action. 

Chronic stress differs from normal and moderate stressors. When stressors are intense, protracted, and unpredictable, this can result in depressive symptoms and learned helplessness. Common examples of situations associated with chronic stress are:

  • Bereavement
  • Unemployment
  • Financial hardship
  • Interpersonal conflict
  • Marriage breakdown and divorce

There is strong evidence for a link between chronic stress and drug use or alcohol use.

Research indicates that ACES (adverse childhood experiences) like sexual abuse, physical abuse, domestic violence, neglect or family dysfunction are associated with a heightened risk of addiction. 

Rates of addiction are also higher in individuals with issues concerning, according to the same data: 

  • Marriage or relationship
  • Harassment
  • Employment dissatisfaction

Studies show that experiencing abuse or neglect in childhood can indirectly increase the risk profile for addiction as a result of reduced self-control. Adolescents and young adults susceptible to substance abuse are known to have reduced emotional control and self-control. In these cases, addictive behaviors can be attributed to environment and experiences. 

The more stressors to which you are exposed, the greater the chance of subsequently developing an addiction

That said, addiction has no single cause. Instead, substance use disorders – the clinical descriptor for addiction – stem from an interplay of variables, including: 

  • Genetics
  • Environment
  • Life experiences

If you are experiencing chronic stress, this can contribute to the development of a substance use disorder. 

An image of a woman staring out the window, depicting someone who is a victim of stress and addiction

Using Drugs to Cope with Stress

According to the self-medication hypothesis of substance use disorders, someone may use alcohol or drugs to alleviate the tension associated with chronic stress or to mitigate the symptoms of mental health conditions like anxiety or depression that are the result of traumatic life events.

Chronic stress is also associated with reduced control of impulses and difficulties delaying gratification. Over time, recurrent stress will decrease gray matter in the brain that govern stress regulation and cognitive control. Resultantly, people experiencing stress are more likely to use addictive substances as a coping mechanism for daily stressors.

Stress and drug use has a two-way relationship. Chronic stress can contribute to substance abuse, while chronic substance abuse can also be a contributory factor for stress. 

Additionally, NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse) reports that substance use of any kind can adversely affect your ability to effectively manage stress.

The Dangers of Stress and Substance Abuse

The primary danger associated with stress and substance abuse is the development of a co-occurring disorder. 

Co-occurring disorder, also known as dual diagnosis, affects 17 million U.S. adults, according to SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration). Dual diagnosis is characterized by the simultaneous presentation of an addiction and a mental health disorder. 

It is estimated that one-third of those with mental health conditions will also abuse addictive substances. NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) reports that rates are even higher among those with SMIs (serious mental illnesses). Roughly half of those diagnosed with SMIs abuse addictive substances. 

Regrettably, self-medicating the symptoms of stress or any mental health issue will provide nothing but fleeting relief. Symptoms will worsen over time, and you also run the risk of developing a substance use disorder, an incurable lifelong condition.

In the event of dual diagnosis, integrated and coordinated treatment is proven to be the most effective approach. We can help you with that here at California Detox

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Stress and Addiction Recovery at California Detox

If you have been suffering from chronic stress and addiction, we can help you recalibrate your life at California Detox in Southern California. 

We specialize in dual diagnosis treatment of addictions and mental health conditions. Unpack both conditions at the same time by choosing one of the following treatment programs: 

  • Inpatient program (residential rehab)
  • PHP (partial hospitalization program)
  • IOP (intensive outpatient program)
  • Remote rehab program

Initiate your recovery by engaging with a supervised medical detox here at our licensed medical detox center in Laguna Beach. After a week or so, you will have addressed the physical issue of dependence on drugs or alcohol. You can then attack the psychological side of addiction in an inpatient or outpatient setting. 

All California Detox treatment programs draw from these evidence-based treatments:

  • Medication-assisted treatment
  • Group counseling
  • Individual counseling
  • Family therapy
  • Psychotherapy (CBT and DBT)
  • Holistic therapies

When you are ready to stop self-medicating stress with drugs or alcohol, we can help you build a firm foundation for recovery here at California Detox. Call 949.390.5377 for immediate assistance.


Stress can be a major factor in the development and maintenance of addiction. When an individual is under a lot of stress, they may turn to substances or behaviors as a way to cope with their feelings of anxiety, distress, and negative emotions. Substance abuse can provide temporary relief from stress, but it can also lead to the development of an addiction, which can create even more stress and other negative consequences in the long run. One way that stress can contribute to addiction is by triggering the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, which can produce pleasurable feelings and create a reinforcing cycle of substance abuse. This can lead to the development of a tolerance, where a person needs to use more of the substance in order to achieve the same level of pleasure. Stress can also make it more difficult to resist the urge to use substances, as it can reduce the ability to control impulses and increase the tendency to make impulsive decisions.
Exercise, deep breathing, meditation, hobbies, setting healthy boundaries, getting enough sleep, and more are all ways to cope with stress.


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