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Stress and Addiction

Stress and Addiction

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From: Psychology Today

Stress is a key risk factor in addiction initiation, maintenance, relapse, and thus treatment failure (Sinha & Jastreboff, 2013). Stressful life events combined with poor coping skills may impact risk of addiction through increasing impulsive responding and self-medication.

While we can't eliminate stress, we need to find ways to manage it.

Stress normally refers to adversity or hardship such as poverty or grief. Biologically, stressful events cause a rise in blood levels of stress hormones (such as cortisol). Fight-or-flight is the normal response to stress. That is, all the blood goes to the muscles so that you’re ready for action.

It is important to distinguish between chronic and normal stress. Moderate and challenging stressors with limited duration are perceived to be pleasant. In fact, some individuals seek “stressful” situations (sensation-seekers or seeking out novel and highly stimulating experiences) that promote the release of stress hormones. However, intense, unpredictable, prolonged stressors (e.g., interpersonal conflict, loss of loved ones, unemployment) produce learned helplessness and depressive-like symptoms. Chronic stress increases the risk for developing depression, the common cold, influenza, tension headaches, grinding teeth, or clenching the jaw and tensing the neck and shoulders (McEwen, 2003).

Trauma in early childhood is a key factor for making people more vulnerable in later life (Keating, 2017). The link from early adversity to later life problems runs through social epigenetics. High levels of stress experienced in early life can cause methylation of key genes that control the stress system. That is, early adversity alters our genetics. When this happens, we live in a constant state of emergency.

The workplace provides almost routine exposure to chronic stress.

Work related stress may include factors such as the demands of the job, the ability to have control over decisions and the degree of social support within the workplace. People in jobs where they don’t perceive themselves to have a lot of control are susceptible to developing clinical anxiety and depression, as well as stress-related medical conditions like ulcers and diabetes (Marmot, 2006).

The stressful event or circumstance itself is not harmful. What matters is how the person appraises (interprets) the stressor and how he or she copes with it. One can use reappraisal as a coping strategy by viewing situations differently (e.g., it is no longer a big deal). One can also cope with stress by smoking, drinking, and overeating. What is important is the meaning that the event or circumstance has for the individual (Lazarus, 2006).

There is solid evidence for the link between chronic stress and the motivation to abuse addictive substances (Al'Absi, 2007). For instance, research in human studies shows that adverse childhood experiences such as physical and sexual abuse, neglect, domestic violence, and family dysfunction are associated with increased risk for addiction. People with an unhappy marriage, dissatisfaction with employment, or harassment, also report increased rates of addiction.

The experience of adverse rearing during childhood and adolescence(childhood abuse and neglect) indirectly increases risk for addiction through decreased self-control (Lovallo, 2013). Young adults at risk for substance abuse are known to have decreased self-control and emotional control. Their addictive behavior is the result of their experiences and the environments in which they were brought up.

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