The Relationship Between Stress, Traumatic Stress, and Addiction

Even though stress is a normal part of life, constant pressure and high amounts of distress can increase your risk of addiction. Whether you’re dealing with routine, everyday stress, tension caused by sudden life changes, or unexpected grief caused by a traumatic event, stress can make you feel miserable, pessimistic, and desperate for relief. Feeling this way can trigger and fuel a number of unhealthy behaviors, including an increased reliance on drugs or alcohol. Luckily, understanding the relationship between stress, trauma, and substance abuse can help you overcome addiction and live a healthy, thriving, sober life.

Stress vs. Traumatic Stress

Stress is the body’s natural response to pressure. Experiencing new and unexpected situations or circumstances that threaten your sense of self triggers stress. This can take the form of daily challenges at work, school, or home. Living through a significant life change or traumatic event can also cause stress. Even though everyone experiences stress differently, experiencing difficult and threatening situations causes the body to produce hormones that trigger a fight or flight response.

What Is Traumatic Stress?

Traumatic stress is different from the body’s natural response to everyday pressures. Trauma-induced stress is a term used to describe the body’s reaction to an abnormal event. This type of circumstance, which is usually painful, intense, and distressing, tends to be outside of the range of daily human experiences.

Events that can cause traumatic stress include:

  • Divorce
  • Neglectful relationships
  • Physical assault
  • Severe injuries
  • Witnessing violence
  • Natural disasters
  • Emotional or verbal abuse
  • Sexual assault and abuse
  • Bullying or ongoing harassment
  • Severe car accidents or fires

Despite what you might think, you don’t have to actually experience a traumatic event to have traumatic stress. Witnessing traumatic events in person (primary trauma) and learning that close family members and friends have experienced trauma (secondary trauma) can both cause traumatic stress. Generally, traumatic stress lessens with time, but unresolved traumatic stress can cause trauma-related disorders such as:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that causes intrusive thoughts, nightmares, flashbacks, fear, paranoia, irritability, and avoidance of people, places, or events that remind you of the trauma.
  • Acute stress disorder (ASD) which refers to the initial symptoms that happen immediately after a traumatic event. Signs of ASD typically include severe anxiety, dissociation, trouble sleeping, poor concentration, flashbacks, hypervigilance, and avoidance.
  • Adjustment disorders, a stress-related condition that can make you feel overwhelmed, hopeless, nervous, and jittery. Adjustment disorders can also cause trouble sleeping, difficulty concentration, lack of appetite, and social withdrawal.

Research shows that there’s a connection between stress, traumatic stress, and addiction.

The Connection Between Stress, Traumatic Stress, and Addiction

Everyone experiences stress and nearly 70 percent of adults in the United States have experienced some type of trauma. Without healthy coping skills and, if needed, professional treatment, these experiences can increase your risk of addiction. At the same time, abusing substances can lead to situations and circumstances that cause more stress. Here’s a little insight into how they’re all connected.

Stress Can Increase Your Risk of Self-Medication

Stress isn’t fun. It’s exhausting, concerning, frustrating, and distressing. Feeling this way day after day, regardless of the reason, can make you crave some type of relief. Whether you’re looking to sleep better at night, ease some of your frustration, or temporarily escape from some of your problems, trying to “self-medicate” in order to fix your problems on your own can be dangerous, especially if you’re using drugs or alcohol. Even though drugs and alcohol can temporarily make you feel better, the consequences of self-medicating yourself are often negative and can be fatal.

Luckily, learning healthier ways of coping with stress, receiving counseling, and attending peer support groups can help you avoid or stop self-medication.

Traumatic Stress Can Make You Hyperactive and Impulsive

Stress-induced trauma lowers the amount of gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, in the brain. GABA decreases activity in the central nervous system, which helps keep you calm. Trauma lowers GABA, allowing adrenaline levels to increase. Traumatic stress also sends the amygdala, which regulates the fight or flight response, into overdrive, making you hyperreactive.

Traumatic stress can also decrease serotonin levels. Serotonin helps regulate your mood, happiness, and anxiety levels. Low serotonin can make you irritable, aggressive, and impulsive. Because trauma can make you hyperactive and impulsive, any small amount of stress or discomfort can cause you to turn to alcohol or drugs, which can increase your risk of addiction.

Stress Can Increase Your Risk Of Developing Unhealthy Coping Skills

Healthy coping skills can help you avoid substance abuse and other unhealthy behavior patterns. But stress decreases rational thinking. High levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, diminishes the brain’s ability to function properly. Chronic stress can also shrink the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for executive function, decision making, and learning. Because of this, stress can make you more susceptible to unhealthy coping skills like negative self-talk, avoidance, and denial, all of which can increase your risk of substance abuse and addiction.

Traumatic Stress Can Increase Your Risk of Psychological Disorders

Experiencing trauma can also make you more susceptible to psychological disorders. A study published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry found that chronic stress can cause long-term brain changes that can make individuals more prone to mood and anxiety disorders. Sadly, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other psychological disorders are often associated with substance abuse.

Stress Can Shrink Brain Areas Responsible For Emotional Regulation

Stress can diminish your ability to handle and process challenging emotions. For example, the stress associated with job loss and car accidents can affect your emotional awareness. Traumatic events such as the death of a loved one, violence, or a severe injury or illness can impact your mood centers. Both types of stress can shrink the prefrontal cortex and frontal lobes, areas of the brain that help you appropriately handle distressing emotions. As a result, stress builds up in the brain, making it more difficult for you to deal with future challenges and causing poor emotional regulation.

Luckily, professional treatment programs like ours at StoneRidge Centers can help you manage stress, heal from trauma, and overcome addiction.

Treatment That Can Help You Handle Stress, Move Past Trauma, and Live Sober

Here at StoneRidge, we know that living with high amounts of stress and experiencing trauma can negatively affect your life. But there’s hope. Our licensed therapists and evidence-based treatment techniques can help you manage stress in a healthy way. Our innovative brain-focused care programs can help you heal from trauma. Our addiction treatment program can help you break the cycle of substance abuse and live a thriving, sober life. Let us help you get there. Contact us today to learn about our wide range of treatment programs.

Innovative, Evidence-Based Therapies

Because mental health and addiction concerns are so often interconnected, we utilize research-based approaches with evidence-based outcomes that promote overall healing and recovery.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)

This low-impact magnetic stimulation activates neurons inside the brain, relieving symptoms associated with depression and anxiety.

qEEG/Brain Mapping

Using brain scanning and readings, we create a map of our patients’ brains, helping us develop more targeted and effective treatments.


This process assists patients in visualizing their own brain functionality through continuous EEG readings.

Spravato Therapy

We use carefully monitored doses of Spravato to help patients struggling with complex mental health disorders, including severe depression.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Patients use this practice to help reframe intrusive or negative thought patterns and develop coping techniques for long-term recovery.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)

This practice helps patients learn to regulate emotions, communicate more effectively, and process their own thoughts and feelings..

Eye Movement Desensitization (EMDR)

Licensed and trained therapists guide patients through this technique for managing stress and anxiety on an ongoing basis.

Individual Therapy

Patients experience one-on-one therapy sessions with a licensed therapist to provide a safe and private place to recover and heal.

Group/Family Therapy

Patients can practice the skills and techniques they have learned in treatment with others in a safe, therapist-guided space.

Contact StoneRidge Centers

5940 E. Copper Hill Dr. Ste B & E, Prescott Valley, AZ. 86314

We exercise progressive, leading brain science in our treatment approach for patients in our community and across the country who are struggling with mental health and addiction challenges.