Substance abuse comes in many forms. One of them is self-medication.
The use of alcohol, illicit drugs, or medications (prescription and over the counter) to cope with anxiety, depression, and other mental disorders is very common. Unfortunately, this type of substance use can increase the likelihood of the onset or escalation of emotional disorders like anxiety.
This leads to a dual diagnosis. Often called co-occurring disorders, the combination of addiction with a mental disorder can rapidly cause a person to spiral out of control.
Unfortunately, too many people are unaware of this fact.
It's tempting to treat anxiety with substance use ... but that almost always turns into a dual diagnosis, the combination of a mental disorder with addiction.
The Misconception About Drugs & Anxiety
Many people believe that substance use will help alleviate emotional or physical distress. This form of self-medication never works. Substance use is usually a temporary relief, accompanied by long-term problems if not addressed soon enough. Individuals may rely on alcohol to cope with stress or use marijuana to alleviate anxiety … yet these choices are typically counterproductive.
The desire to avoid pain, be it emotional or physical, is innate within us all – hence the "fight-or-flight" response. Substance use is naturally the "flight" response because it is the attempt to avoid uncomfortable feelings. The best way to fight feelings of anxiety is to find ways to work through them.
Symptoms of Anxiety Disorder
Anxiety is common among individuals from time to time. Stress usually tends to initiate this reaction. In turn, numerous people engage in substance use seeking a reprieve. Anxiety is among the most frequent psychiatric problems in the United States, with a rate of 28.8%.
Mild anxiety can become more severe with substance use. When this happens, it may turn into an anxiety disorder. In severe cases, such a disorder can prevent a person from leaving home or obtaining work.
Some of the aggravated symptoms that a person can experience are:
- Racing heart
- Trembling or sweating
- Feelings of impending doom
- Chest pain
- Feelings of being out of control
Anxiety disorders result from disruptions in certain centers of the brain. In a healthy brain, these centers control behavior, emotions, and impulses; however, substance use can cause these critical regions of the brain to deregulate, leading to a worsening or onset of anxiety.
For example, smoking cigarettes is thought by the individual to alleviate anxiety; conversely, nicotine is known to cause people to feel more anxious. When an individual reaches for a cigarette, what they are really doing is relieving their nicotine withdrawal symptoms. The anxiety returns, and it becomes a continuous cycle.
This cycle is visible with the use of other substances such as alcohol, marijuana, opioids, and even prescription medications that are taken unsuitably.
The Rise of Another Pandemic
According to an article published by My Central Jersey on August 7, 2022, substance abuse and anxiety have increased significantly among youth. Adults who reported having anxiety increased by 2% in 2018 alone.
It’s readily apparent that anxiety and substance use correlates with each other. The COVID-19 pandemic has regrettably caused an upsurge in substance use, according to another article published by the Republican Policy Committee on March 15, 2022.
Due to the isolation period of the pandemic, many facilities where people received treatment were unavailable, and many individuals resorted to substances to cope with their health matters. During this period, individuals have also been subjected to employment loss, eliminating their income stream. As a result, anxiety disorders continued to rise. The rise of these disorders has put a strain on health care resources. While there have been improvements in legislation to address this concern, individuals are still struggling with their mental health.
Healthy Ways to Cope with Anxiety
If an individual is battling anxiety, there are some beneficial ways to cope. For instance, eating a nutritional diet can help. (No, this does not mean only having to eat lettuce!) What is recommended is a balanced diet. Limiting or stopping caffeine could also help with anxiety.
Quitting smoking is also a proven means to reduce anxiety significantly. Getting adequate sleep is also encouraged; at least seven hours of sleep is suggested.
If a person is experiencing the symptoms of anxiety, there are also breathing techniques that can be helpful in providing a way to move through them. Physical activity can make a significant impact as well. It stimulates endorphins, which elevate your mood. Start small. Even a brisk walk is helpful. Meditating is another option.
Yes, it can be hard to quiet the mind, but do not worry; you do not have to be Buddha.
Of course, a critical method of alleviating anxiety is to refrain from using substances. This, by far, is essential to practice.
Leaving Anxiety Behind
Fighting anxiety can be troublesome. Turning to substances, however, is not helpful. As mentioned earlier, substance use only furthers the effects of anxiety. Substance use can lead to a full-blown substance use disorder (SUD), another issue with its own set of complications, including disruptions in relationships and work. Other aspects of life, including mental health, can also undergo further complications.
Individuals should seek help if anxiety interferes with day-to-day activities. Medical treatment is available for anxiety if holistic approaches are ineffective. There are healthy alternative medications to benzodiazepines that are non-habit forming. These medications include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and beta-blockers. Of course, these prescriptions must be taken as directed by a medical professional.
If you struggle with anxiety and/or substance use, know that you are not alone. We are all on a journey, and your life is no exception. Fortunately, guidance and support are accessible.
Anxiety and substance use does not have to come in between you and the life you want for yourself.
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Dual diagnosis isn’t easy to live with. The combination of anxiety and addiction can – and will – ruin lives, feeding off each other until nothing’s left. Fortunately, dual diagnosis is treatable.
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