anxiety and addiction

Anxiety and Addiction: A Self-Perpetuating Cycle

People who have anxiety disorders may feel some type of nervousness or alertness at all times, even when they're not facing any kind of threat at all. It's difficult to live on the edge like this, and people with anxiety may turn to drug abuse and addiction as they try to cope, and this can make their anxiety so much worse.

teenThousands of years ago, humans were in a precarious position, facing the very real threat of attack almost every moment of the day. Those who could quickly react, either by running or by fighting back, could stay alive while those who were unable to detect a threat tended to lose their battles before they’d even had a chance to begin to respond. In time, the nervous system began to adjust to this intense pressure, and as a result, modern people are able to tap into a deep pool of chemicals when some portion of the brain detects an alarming situation. These signals cause the heart to race, the pupils to widen and the muscles to tense. People might feel anxious and charged, long before their minds are even able to truly assess the situation on an intellectual level.

This fight-or-flight response may have kept human ancestors alive, but there are times when this well-honed response can go haywire, triggering a reaction even when no threat is eminent. People who have anxiety disorders may feel some type of nervousness or alertness at all times, even when they’re not facing any kind of threat at all. It’s difficult to live on the edge like this, and people with anxiety may turn to drug abuse and addiction as they try to cope, and this can make their anxiety so much worse.

Symptoms and Prevalence

The National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH) reports that about 8 percent of those ages 13 to 18 years have an anxiety disorder, and most of these people began exhibiting symptoms when they were about 6 years old. The symptoms may begin in a mild way, building up until the teen can no longer stand the pain, or they may come on in a sudden and overwhelming fashion.

Anxiety disorders come in many different shapes and sizes, and while they all have an out-of-whack stress response at their center, the symptoms can be slightly different from disorder to disorder. Common conditions include:

  • Panic disorder. Overwhelming attacks of fear and dread characterize this disorder, causing people to feel as though they’re under intense pressure even when they might have been completely at ease mere moments before.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder. Cycles of intrusive thoughts, followed by rituals to remove those thoughts, followed by the return of intrusive thoughts, are common for those with this disorder.
  • Generalized anxiety disorder. Chronic, severe worrying over the details of everyday life is common for people with this disorder. They may be unable to go to school, participate in family events or do chores, as their thoughts are simply too overwhelming.
  • Social anxiety disorder. Irrational fear of speaking in public or talking to others characterizes this disorder. People with this condition may develop symptoms of panic when they even think about participating in a social situation.
  • Phobia. An overwhelming fear of something others find merely distasteful strikes people with this condition. They may be terrified of insects, snakes, bridges, flying in an airplane or being enclosed in a small space.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This condition impacts people who have been through a stressful situation, such as a natural disaster or an episode of interpersonal violence. Overwhelming memories may flood the person’s mind without warning.

There are specific tests medical practitioners can use to diagnose anxiety disorders in young people, and typically, symptoms must be in place for at least six months and be serious enough to interfere with daily life before a formal diagnosis of anxiety will be provided. There are some teens, however, who have mild symptoms that are of concern but that are perhaps not strong enough quite yet to merit a formal diagnosis. According to NIMH, about 25.1 percent of those ages 13 to 18 years will have a lifetime presence of an anxiety disorder, but only about 6 percent have symptoms that would be considered “severe.” Those with mild symptoms don’t tend to get better on their own, however. In fact, they might grow worse with time.

dual diagnosisA Growing Sense of Anxiety

Mental illnesses like this can feed upon themselves, and in time, they can become more and more severe. People with PTSD, for example, may become intensely afraid of experiencing a flashback while in a public place, and in time, they may refuse to leave the house altogether. Those with phobias can become acutely afraid of their specific triggers, and they might begin to experience symptoms when they see pictures of the things they fear. Those with panic disorders might develop phobias about the people or places they associate with a prior attack, and in time, they too might feel as though they cannot safely leave the house.

Anxiety disorders can sometimes morph into other mental health conditions. For example, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, people with anxiety are two to three times more likely to have a substance abuse issue at some point in life, when compared to people who don’t have an anxiety disorder. It’s easy to see why this would be the case. Addictive drugs seem to soothe the disturbing feelings in the moment, producing a sense of calm that the person might find hard to obtain in any other way, but substance abuse and addiction could make anxiety worse.

For example, alcohol or drugs can trigger panic attacks, and the guilt that a person feels after a binge might also trigger panic. Similarly, people with PTSD might find that alcohol helps them to sleep, but the drug makes their sleep lighter and dreams more vivid, and this can cause a flashback.

When to Step In

The American Psychological Association reports, unequivocally, that anxiety disorders can be effectively treated. People who have these disorders might feel as though their situations are hopeless, but there really are a plethora of options that can help people learn how to control their anxiety, and deal with any substance abuse and addiction issues that have developed in the interim.

In general, teens who have these attributes really should be assessed for an anxiety disorder:

  • Reduced performance at school due to worry or fear
  • Inability to go to school or deal with social situations
  • Repeated talk of trauma, anxiety, worry or concerns
  • Appearance of substance abuse

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Some of these symptoms could be caused by a medical condition, so a doctor should be asked to perform a complete physical exam, just to rule out any contributing problems that should be addressed. With a firm diagnosis in hand, treatment can begin, and a licensed therapist can be vital in this effort. Treatment plans tend to vary dramatically from person to person, depending on the teen’s background, substance abuse issues, personal preferences, and so on, but many therapists use cognitive behavioral techniques to help their clients. Here, teens are asked to identify the situations that tend to provoke their feelings of nervousness, and they’re asked to come up with new ways to handle those feelings without using drugs or alcohol. Teens might also be asked to slowly become reacquainted with the people, places and things that cause them fear, and they might be asked to deal with prior trauma that might lie at the root of the problem.

The National Institutes of Health reports that medications might play a role in the treatment of anxiety disorders, but those medications might need weeks to build up to therapeutic doses in the body. It’s vital that teens continue to take their medications as directed, even if they don’t think those medications are working, so they can build up the proper amount in the bloodstream and feel relief. Antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications or beta-blockers all might be used to help soothe symptoms and provide relief.

Support groups might also help in the fight against both anxiety and addictions. Here, people can share their accomplishments as they begin to heal from their anxiety disorders, and they can pick up new tools they can use as they attempt to keep their symptoms under control. These meetings are often provided at no charge in the community, allowing teens the opportunity to tap into support and learning opportunities even when they’re no longer enrolled in a formal addiction or mental health treatment program.

Vital Support

therapyParents play a key role in helping their children overcome an anxiety disorder. Their work may begin when the child enters treatment, as parents may be asked to choose the program and arrange for payment, but when the treatment is complete and the child is once again living at home on a full-time basis, the parents need to ensure that the child feels safe and is still working toward recovery. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that parents can help their anxious children during this important time by:

  • Staying calm when the teen is anxious
  • Praising accomplishments, not criticizing failures
  • Maintaining a reliable routine.
  • Relaxing or modifying expectations during stressful situations
  • Paying attention to the child’s feelings

At Muir Wood, we also believe that parents can help their children by participating in their treatment programs. Parents can learn how to modify the family structure and demands to help the teen, and parents can learn how to spot the signs of an addiction relapse or the return of anxiety symptoms. If you’d like to know more about our treatment program, including our parent learning options, please call our toll-free line.