April is National Stress Awareness Month, and we’re shining the light on stress and addiction.
There is a well-established link between higher stress levels and addictive disorders. People with alcoholism, drug dependence, eating disorders, problem gambling or gaming, workaholism or sex addiction experience stress more often and intensely than non-addicts. Stress and addiction relapse are also linked, especially when people haven’t developed coping strategies in their recovery.
If you’re in active addiction, it might seem like your addictive habit is the only thing that relieves your stress. Addicts seek out substances or processes to change the way they feel. Using is about escaping uncomfortable feelings or blotting out reality. If your addiction seems to be all about thrill-seeking or the pursuit of pleasure, sober life can feel unfulfilling or dull in comparison. However, the tension between the highs and lows of addiction – between the hits and the withdrawal – adds significantly to common strains.
For recovering addicts, stress awareness is vital to health and wellbeing. To sustain addiction recovery, you need to know how to cope with strong emotions, challenging situations or difficult people. Most addicts in early recovery have times when they think about using again – do you know what to do if this happens to you?
In this blog, we’ll look at the link between stress and addiction. We’ll also explain five of how addiction treatment equips people with new approaches to stress. You will also find the 20 questions for recovering addicts to identify common sources of stress – a simple checklist to use and adapt for your life.
Stress and Addiction – What’s the Link?
The NHS defines stress as physical changes in the body, which help us face threats or difficult circumstances. A pounding heart, faster breathing, sweating and tense muscles are some of the physical signs of stress.
Stress responses are connected to our survival – the ‘fight or flight’ reactions that help us react if we’re in imminent danger. We need stress reactions if a car is coming towards us at high speed, for example. Occasional stress isn’t a problem for most people – once the threat passes, then the body and mind return to their normal state with no lasting effects.
Consistent stress, however, is problematic for most people. Physically, high-stress levels can alter blood pressure, affect sleep and breathing, cause headaches and lead to muscular tension and pain. Mentally, feeling continuously stressed can lead to anxiety and depression.
Without adequate ways of managing stress, some people turn to mood-altering substances or activities to deal with the pressure. This could start as a joint after a hard day’s work, or a drink to forget about money problems, or overeating to avoid loneliness. If the underlying issues aren’t resolved, then it’s common for habits to form and escalate.
If addiction takes hold, using to escape stress becomes a vicious cycle. In times of stress, people turn to their addiction for respite, but then the addiction creates even more problems. The stress of withdrawal and the negative consequences of using mount up.
Dealing with Stress and Addiction – 5 Recovery Strategies
1. Develop your stress awareness
If you’ve been addicted for years, you’ve probably been exposed to much stress. It might be the norm for you to feel very stressed, so much so that you no longer recognise the physical and mental signs of stress.
In treatment for addiction, you will develop a new awareness of how you experience stress. Identifying the physical signs of stress, as well as the emotions you feel under pressure, is the start of developing healthier responses. Increasing your stress awareness will reduce your cravings to use over time.
2. Reduce impulsivity
In active addiction, often decisions to use are made automatically. You feel stressed, then immediately you reach for alcohol, drugs, food or another addictive habit. You want to take your mind off the problem fast.
Addiction rehabilitation equips you with the tools to pause when you feel stressed. You don’t have to react immediately or rush for the nearest fix. In treatment, skilled therapists help you to question and re-evaluate your reactions to other people and life events.
The longer you’re in recovery, the more you will be able to choose how you respond to stressful events. Sometimes the best approach is to do nothing at all – until you feel sure of the way to proceed.
3. Consider the stress basics
If you’re feeling stressed and you don’t know why have you overlooked the basics? The HALT acronym is often taught to addicts in their first days of treatment – are you hungry, angry, lonely or tired? These are all stressors, and if you learn to recognise and address them promptly, you’ll be much more effective at managing stress.
There are other very common physical, mental and environmental stressors. Are you in physical pain? Is there something you’re keeping to yourself that you need to talk about? Is your house damp or very noisy or unsafe? Identifying the causes of stress in your life, then taking action to change them, will help you to maintain your recovery.
4. Stay in the present
When stressful situations occur, it’s easy to fall into the trap of focusing on future or past scenarios that you cannot control.
For example, you might be waiting for the results of a significant health test. It’s keeping you up at night, wondering what the outcome will be. You think about bad news and worry about how you’ll cope. It’s terrifying to think of the diagnosis. You wish you’d taken better care of your health in the past. You feel angry with yourself for not going to the doctor sooner.
Alternatively, there may be impending redundancies at your workplace. You worry that you’ll lose your job and you won’t be able to find alternative work. Will you be able to pay the bills and maintain your home? You kick yourself for turning down another job offer last year.
Whenever you spot yourself doing this, you can reduce your stress by focusing back on the truth of your situation today.
5. Knowing you will cope, whatever happens
This takes time and experience to develop in addiction recovery. Every time you face and overcome stressful situations in your recovery, it increases your belief that you can cope next time.
Whether things work out the way you’d like them to or not, you discover that you are resilient and adaptable.
Stress and Addiction Recovery – 20 Questions to Spot and Manage Stress
- When did you last eat a healthy meal?
- When did you last drink water?
- Are you regularly in touch with friends and family?
- Do you speak to peers who support your addiction recovery?
- Are you as active as you can be?
- How much sleep do you get each night?
- Do you often say yes when you want to say no?
- Does your amount of screen time make you feel disconnected or wired?
- When did you last do something purely for fun?
- Are you afraid or angry about something?
- Do you need to acknowledge or apologise for a mistake you’ve made?
- Are you avoiding a pressing health concern?
- Are you able to meet your bills comfortably?
- Is there something you feel is missing from your life?
- Is there one positive thing you can do today to change a difficult situation?
- When did you last have a day off?
- Are you keeping something to yourself that you really need to talk about?
- Do you feel you have to be constantly available to other people?
- Do you keep putting off something you’d love to do?
- What makes you feel calm? Can you do that thing right now?
If you’re experiencing stress and addiction, please get in touch with Addiction Helper. We’ll assess your addictive disorder and guide you on the best addiction in the UK and abroad for your circumstances.