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What Causes Addiction: Stress and Addiction in the U.S.

Stress is a normal part of life, and affects roughly 73 percent of Americans on a regular basis, but sometimes stress can be a trigger for drug use. Stress is commonly known to produce feelings of depression and anxiety, and can trigger other mental health conditions when left untreated. Stress can even increase one’s risk for substance use disorders and addiction — especially when people turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with their symptoms.

Using drugs and alcohol may seem like a good way to relieve stress and help you feel better for a short time. However, this behavior can eventually turn into a habit, and lead to serious problems with your health, career, relationships, and overall livelihood. Many times, the problems that stem from addiction tend to worsen existing stress, and can even add more stressors to your life in the form of financial loss, incarceration, fatal diseases, and more.

Here’s a closer look at the link between stress and addiction, and at how you can manage stress using healthier methods and stay addiction-free for life.

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What Causes Addiction in America?

Substance use disorders affect roughly 20.2 million Americans, or 8.4 percent of the U.S. population. Addiction can be caused by any one of several reasons, and affects each person differently.

Here are common causes of addiction in America:


A person’s genetic background accounts for about 50 percent of their risk for becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol. Those with a family history of addiction are more likely to suffer from addiction than their counterparts.

Early exposure

Using drugs and alcohol at a young age can have adverse effects on a youth’s brain development and increase the risk for addiction later in life.

Problems at home

Feeling unsafe or unhappy at home can lead to substance abuse and addiction.

Problems at work or school

Poor work performance poor grades, strained relationships with employees or teachers, and other related problems can cause addiction.


Spending time with people who use drugs and alcohol, or spending time in environments with easy access to drugs and alcohol increases the risk for addiction.

Mental health disorders

Those who suffer mental illnesses like depression and anxiety are about 50 percent more likely to also suffer from addiction.


Trauma, divorce, job loss, and everyday stressors related to family, work, and school can increase the risk for addiction.

In the U.S. there are 43.6 million Americans over the age of 18 who are diagnosed with mental illnesses, which make up roughly 18.1 percent of the population. Of these people, 7.9 million suffer from both a substance use disorder and mental illness.

Leading Causes of Addiction

Stress and mental health disorders are the leading causes of addiction. Someone who suffers chronic stress or has been diagnosed with mental illness is at higher risk for being diagnosed with a substance use disorder regardless of gender, age, and socioeconomic status.

Addiction is defined a chronic, relapsing brain disease that controls one’s impulses, thoughts, and behaviors. Stress and addiction have a lot in common, and can both cause lasting, damaging effects to the brain. When chronic stress or another mental health disorder is present, addiction is more likely, and vice versa.

1. Stress

Stress is the body’s way of responding to threatening situations that put our lives and well-being at risk. While short-term stress is normal to experience every now and then, long-term stress offers a long list of adverse physical and psychological health effects — including addiction.

Stress is commonly caused by routine everyday responsibilities involving family, work, school, and finances. Stress can also be caused by sudden negative life changes like losing a job, going through divorce, or being diagnosed with a terminal illness like cancer. Traumatic stress is the type of stress experienced by those in real danger of being injured or killed, and can sometimes lead to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Symptoms of stress can be physical and/or psychological. Those who have difficulty coping with stress may use drugs and alcohol as a way to self-medicate or treat their symptoms — for instance, stimulants like Adderall and cocaine can boost energy levels and concentration. But relying on drugs and alcohol to treat stress can make it difficult to navigate through life without these substances, and can quickly lead to dependency and addiction.

Physical symptoms of stress:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Insomnia
  • Low energy
  • Tense muscles
  • Muscle aches and pains
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Chest pain
  • Shaking
  • Ringing in the ear
  • Dry mouth
  • Grinding teeth
  • Changes in appetite

Psychological symptoms of stress:

What causes addiction

Mood swings and irritability are common symptoms of stress.

  • Feeling loss of control
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Racing thoughts
  • Low self-esteem
  • Constant worrying
  • Poor memory
  • Poor focus
  • Poor judgement
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Loss of sex drive

2. Anxiety

Anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental health disorder in the U.S. Anxiety is characterized by feelings of worry and fear that are strong enough to negatively interfere with your normal daily activities. Like stress, anxiety is a normal reaction to situations that have the potential to negatively affect your life. In fact, stress itself is the most common cause of anxiety.

Here are five major types of anxiety disorders most prevalent in the U.S.

  • Generalized anxiety disorder. GAD is the most common anxiety disorder, and is characterized by chronic anxiety and overly worried behavior even when no provoking factors are present.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder. OCD is characterized by a combination of recurrent, excessive thoughts and repetitive behaviors — the latter of which are performed with hopes of making the obsessive thoughts go away. For example, a person with OCD may wash their hands repeatedly or check the stove a set number of times to make sure it’s turned off before leaving the house.
  • Panic disorder. This anxiety disorder is characterized by recurrent unexpected panic attacks — sudden episodes of intense fear or impending doom accompanied by symptoms of sweating, shaking, dizziness, and chest pain.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD affects roughly eight million Americans during any given year, and develops after someone has a traumatic experience. PTSD is characterized by recurrent thoughts, memories, and flashbacks about the traumatic event, and can be triggered by personal assault, war, accidents, and natural or human-caused disasters.
  • Social anxiety disorder. SAD is marked by irrational and overwhelming feelings of anxiety, embarrassment, and self-consciousness during everyday social interactions.

Some who are diagnosed with anxiety disorders may abuse drugs and alcohol with hopes of overcoming or masking their symptoms. For instance, a person with SAD may abuse alcohol to fit in with peers and feel more social and talkative. However, evidence shows that substance abuse can worsen anxiety disorders, and vice versa. GAD and panic disorder are the most common anxiety disorders associated with drug use disorders.

3. Depression

After anxiety, depressive disorders rank as the second most common type of mental illness in the U.S. More than one in every 20 Americans over the age of 12 report currently or recently experiencing depression within a previous two-week period. Depression is a leading cause of disease and injury in the U.S., and is characterized by feelings of persistent sadness and loss of interest in people, activities, and life in general.

Much like addiction, depression is a complex disorder that can be caused by one or more factors, and affects everyone uniquely. Many risk factors for depression are the same as those for addiction, including genetics, environment, and trauma. But depression can also be caused by medications, hormonal imbalance, and certain unhealthy lifestyle habits including poor nutrition and lack of exercise.

Common symptoms of depression:

  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Low energy
  • Agitation
  • Insomnia
  • Restlessness
  • Changes in appetite
  • Poor concentration
  • Anxiety
  • General discontent
  • Feelings of guilt
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Sadness
  • Loss of interest
  • Suicidal thoughts

The Problem with Using Drugs as a Coping Mechanism

Since stress is a normal part of being human, everyone needs a coping mechanism, or an activity that helps them unwind, relax, and decompress. However, some indulgences like drugs and alcohol are far more dangerous and riskier than others, and can lead to worsened stress and mental illness, along with addiction. Relying on drugs and alcohol to escape stress can turn into a deadly habit, and magnify your existing stress level.

Using drugs as a way to cope with stress fails to address the underlying root cause of your stress, and offers only temporary relief from your problems. Fortunately, there are countless healthier ways to reduce stress that won’t cause you to suffer any extra loss, or a higher risk for addiction.

Here are healthy ways to reduce stress without turning to drugs and alcohol.

  • Exercise regularly. Exercise naturally reduces stress by helping you produce more endorphins and sleep better at night. Find a sport or fitness routine you love and truly enjoy, and stick to it.
  • Practice deep breathing. Deep breathing and meditation slows your heart rate, lowers your blood pressure, and is scientifically proven to be effective at relieving stress and anxiety — including that associated with drug detox.
  • Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is the act of being aware of the present moment, and tuning into your senses to help you relax.
  • Spend time with loved ones. Being around those you care about triggers the release of “feel-good” hormones that counteract stress hormones.
  • Set aside leisure time. No matter how busy you are, take a set amount of time every day to do your favorite thing, whether it be going for a run, reading a book, or playing with your pet.
  • Practice good nutrition. Healthy, whole foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains are packed with nutrients that naturally boost your overall health and ward off stress.

How to Stop Using a Substance

If you’ve been using drugs and alcohol regularly to cope with stress, or notice a loved one is suffering from chronic stress and addiction, know there are treatment centers ready to help you or your loved one fight addiction. Addiction can be safely and effectively treated using detoxification, therapy, and extended care. Detox treats drug dependence, therapy treats psychological addiction, and extended care programs help you stay sober in the months and years following treatment.

Drug detox is the first stage of treatment, and allows you to withdraw from drugs and alcohol in a safe, controlled medical environment surrounded by attentive doctors and nurses. Some detox programs involve methods that allow you to withdraw from drugs gradually over a period of time using medications that eliminate withdrawal symptoms — a method known as medication-assisted treatment, or MAT. MAT is commonly used to treat opioid addiction, since heroin and painkiller dependence can be difficult to overcome without this type of medical intervention.

Other common detox methods include a medical detox and rapid detox. A medical detox involves the use of medications that relieve certain withdrawal symptoms, and often takes place in an inpatient or hospital setting so patients’ symptoms can be monitored around the clock. A rapid detox is when patients undergo a speedy detox under general anesthesia, and lasts only a few days so patients can immediately move on to therapy.

Treating Co-Occurring Disorders after Detox

People who suffer from addiction are twice as likely as the general population to suffer from mood and anxiety disorders, including stress. The opposite is also true — meaning a large percentage of people with substance use disorders often require treatment for stress, depression, or an anxiety disorder — all of which are also known as co-occurring disorders. Co-occurring disorders are treated using therapy following drug detox.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, is one of the most common therapies used to treat co-occurring disorders. CBT helps patients identify and improve negative thought-processes and behaviors that caused them to start abusing drugs and alcohol in the first place. When stress is a person’s leading cause of addiction, CBT teaches that person how to cope with and manage stress using healthier techniques.

Individual and group therapy, support groups, addiction education, and relapse prevention training are other therapies that effectively treat co-occurring disorders. These therapies are included as part of extended care programs that help patients stay sober after completing addiction treatment.

If you or someone you care about needs help recovering from a substance use disorder, call our 24/7 confidential helpline at 800-996-6135(Who Answers?) . Our caring addiction counselors will discuss all your treatment options, and help you find a detox center that offers all the therapies you need to successfully combat addiction.

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