Content reviewed by Karen Rubenstein, LMFT
Anxiety disorders and substance use disorders (SUDs) are among the most prevalent mental health conditions in the United States. Coincidentally, they often co-occur together because they develop from similar risk factors. Experiencing anxiety along with an SUD, such as addiction, can be crippling as unresolved symptoms of one condition can exacerbate the symptoms of the other condition. It is crucial to recognize the warning signs of anxiety and anxiety-related disorders, understand what links anxiety to substance use and addiction and ultimately work to prevent these conditions from co-occurring in your life and in the lives of your loved ones.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a feeling of apprehension, fear or uneasiness with what is happening around you or what is to come. Despite the uncomfortable feelings it can produce, anxiety is a normal emotion. Your brain reacts to stress and activates your body’s fight-or-flight response, a natural survival mechanism that prepares your mind and body to either face threatening stimuli or flee from it. It is important to recognize that an individual’s perception of a threat activates the body’s fight-or-flight response. This concept explains why anxiety can occur without any threatening stimuli physically present.
It is normal to feel anxiety before taking a test, giving a speech or making an important decision. Anxiety can be stimulating, producing a boost of energy that helps you to concentrate. However, many people with anxiety experience an overactivation of their body’s fight-or-flight response that can be overwhelming. Without proper coping, everyday pressure can quickly develop into an anxiety disorder or co-occurring substance use disorder.
Recognizing Abnormal Anxiety and Anxiety-Related Disorders
Since anxiety is a normal emotion, it can be challenging to recognize abnormal anxiety in yourself or others. In general, if you feel unable to function normally in your daily life because of the effects of anxiety, you may be struggling with an anxiety disorder. It is essential to seek help as quickly as possible to reduce any risk of symptoms worsening or developing a co-occurring substance use disorder.
There are several types of anxiety disorders. Every disorder will appear differently, and symptoms vary from person to person. A few common anxiety disorders include:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
GAD is characterized by persistent feelings of anxiety, dread and fear that interfere with daily life. This condition is different from occasional stress or anxiety that results from certain life events. People diagnosed with GAD experience intense anxiety that lasts for months or even years.
Symptoms of GAD include:
- Feeling on-edge
- Chronic fatigue and insomnia
- Issues with concentrating
- Experiencing physical aching or unexplained pains
- Problems with controlling feelings of anxiety or worry
Frequent panic attacks characterize panic disorder. Panic attacks are unexpected periods of intense fear marked by a loss of control even when no trigger or threat is present. People can experience panic attacks without being diagnosed with panic disorder. However, someone with panic disorder will likely worry about when their next panic attack will happen and try to actively prevent future attacks by actively avoiding places or situations they associate with anxiety.
During a panic attack, a person may experience:
- Chest pain
- Racing heart
- Feeling out of control
Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD)
Social anxiety disorder is characterized by persistent fear of judgment or embarrassment by others. People with SAD fear social situations and often avoid them entirely, which also applies to work or attending school.
People with SAD may experience some of the following symptoms:
- Sweating or trembling
- Racing heart
- Rigid body posture
- Difficulty with making or keeping eye contact
- Feeling self-conscious
Anxiety and Self-Medicating
There are several reasons why anxiety and anxiety disorders often co-occur with substance use disorders, including:
- Using alcohol and other drugs can lead to addiction, and people with addiction may experience more severe mental health problems at the cost of their substance use. Anxiety, for example, is more likely to develop into an anxiety disorder if that person is experiencing active addiction.
- Some mental health conditions can lead to addiction due to substance misuse or self-medicating.
- Mental health disorders and substance use disorders share similar risk factors, including brain changes, genetic vulnerabilities and early exposure to trauma.
One of the most notable reasons these conditions occur together is self-medicating. Self-medication occurs when a person uses alcohol or other drugs to cope with their mental health distress. A person with an anxiety disorder may turn to alcohol to experience relief from their distressing physical or psychological anxiety symptoms.
While self-medicating may seem to offer temporary relief in the short term, it only exacerbates symptoms in the long run. Self-medication nearly always leads to addiction as well as worsening anxiety.
If you or your loved one is struggling with the effects of anxiety, it is important to actively work to prevent self-medicating and associated addiction from developing. Some protective factors that work against anxiety and addiction from co-occurring include:
- Talking about anxiety with loved ones when it surfaces
- Finding effective coping mechanisms for navigating anxiety without using alcohol or other drugs
- Getting help for substance use if using substances to self-medicate
- Maintaining positive bonds with your loved ones who support you
- Getting connected with community treatment resources
At Casa Palmera, we offer specialized programs for those struggling with co-occurring disorders, especially anxiety disorders and addiction. We want you to know that there are treatment programs available for you that will propel your healing journey. To learn more about our programs or for more about anxiety and addiction, contact us today.