Research consistently shows that high amounts of stress and uncertainty can increase the risk of addiction. In fact, stress and anxiety, often driven by uncertainty, are two of the most common risk factors for substance use disorders and relapse.
But stress and uncertainty are a part of life. This means that we have to learn to deal with stress and uncertainty without abusing prescription pills, using illegal drugs, or excessively consuming alcohol.
We can do this by understanding the connection between stress, uncertainty, and addiction. The more we understand how stress and uncertainty can lead to addiction, the more we’ll know about what we should and shouldn’t do when we’re stressed and uncertain about the future.
What Is Stress?
Stress is the feeling of being overwhelmed or unable to cope with mental or emotional pressure. When we’re stressed, our body is responding to some type of pressure. This pressure can be caused by experiencing something new, unexpected, or something that threatens our sense of self. We also tend to feel stressed when we feel like we’re not in control of a situation. When we feel that way, the body’s autonomic nervous system initiates the “fight-or-flight” response which helps us deal with stressful situations. Even though most of us can’t pinpoint the exact moment our fight-or-flight response begins, we know it’s activated when our bodies react a certain way.
How Does The Body Respond To Stress?
When the autonomic nervous system triggers the fight-or-flight response, we tend to experience:
- Chest pain or a feeling like the heart is racing
- Headaches, dizziness, or shaking
- Tension in our muscles
- A clenched jaw
- Excessive sweating
- Shallow breathing and hyperventilating
- Heart palpitations
- High blood pressure
- Insomnia or trouble sleeping
- Fatigue or low energy
- Indigestion, acid reflux, or upset stomach
Stress can also trigger behavioral and psychological symptoms such as:
- Irritability and anger
- Anxiety, nervousness, or worry
- Panic attacks
- Withdrawing from others
- Snapping at others
- Sexual problems
- Being indecisive or inflexible
Even though stress can look and feel differently for everyone, the body’s response to pressure is almost always rooted in uncertainty.
The Relationship Between Stress and Uncertainty
Uncertainty is one of the most common causes of stress. When we’re uncertain about something, we don’t know what to expect. This prevents us from planning or preparing for the future. When we don’t know what the future holds, we can’t rely on past experiences or lessons. This frustrates us and can trigger stress. Dr. Anisha Patel-Dunn explains it this way: “Our minds like to plan for the future using our knowledge of our past experiences to anticipate what our future will hold.” When we can’t do that, we have difficulty making an informed decision. That difficulty, rooted in uncertainty, causes stress.
Negative beliefs about uncertainty can also trigger stress. Many people believe that certainty is good and uncertainty is bad. This kind of belief, which scientists refer to as an “intolerance of uncertainty,” can cause us to react negatively when we’re faced with uncertainty. Having a low tolerance of uncertainty has also been associated with mental health conditions such as depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Sadly, these negative reactions and mental health challenges can increase our chances of developing a substance use disorder.
How Stress and Uncertainty Can Lead To Addiction
Most of us are aware of the fact that stress and uncertainty can lead to addiction, but we may not fully understand why or how that happens. Even though everyone has different experiences with addiction, here are 4 ways stress and uncertainty can lay the foundation for substance use disorders.
1. Stress Can Encourage Impulsive Behavior
Experiencing stress triggers the fight-or-flight response. As the name suggests, this response can prepare us to deal with the root of our stress or help us escape from it. This means that we can use the adrenaline surging through our bodies to deal with the uncertainty we’re facing, or we can deny it. Either choice can lead to impulsive behavior. “Liquid courage,” for example, can be an example of a fight response while using heroin or taking extra Xanax pills can be an attempt to escape the stress. Although different, both decisions are impulsive and can lead to addiction.
2. Stress Can Incite Self-Medication
Dealing with stress isn’t fun, but when we try to treat our problems with drugs, alcohol, food, prescription medicine, or any other substance without the advice and guidance of a licensed physician, we’re self-medicating. Unfortunately, self-medication doesn’t actually help resolve the stress we feel. It’s a temporary facade that almost always prevents us from getting the help we need. Self-medication can also make our symptoms worse.
3. Uncertainty Can Cause Emotional Distress
Fearing the unknown can cause emotional distress that over time can have a negative impact on our health. Chronic stress and emotional distress can cause cardiovascular diseases and memory loss. All 3 of these ailments can cause us to drink alcohol or use drugs as a way of coping with emotional or physical pain. This can be especially true if we aren’t dealing with emotional distress in a healthy way.
4. Uncertainty Can Cause Anxiety
Feeling uncertain about situations can also make us anxious. Research shows that anxiety is often associated with addiction. Even though anxiety doesn’t always lead to addiction, when we try to use drugs or alcohol to cope with our anxiety or deal with our fear, we can, in fact, increase our risk of developing a substance use disorder.
Learn A Better Way To Deal With Stress and Uncertainty
Stress and uncertainty are part of life. If we don’t learn how to deal with them in a healthy way, we can develop an unhealthy dependence on drugs or alcohol. But that doesn’t have to be your story. There are better ways to deal with stress and uncertainty. Our mental health programs can help you apply these techniques to your daily life.
If you have developed an addiction because of stress or uncertainty, don’t lose hope. Our addiction treatment programs can help you overcome addiction and live a thriving sober life. Contact us today to learn more.
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