Over 18% of adults in the United States have a clinical anxiety disorder. Although everyone experiences anxiety and stress throughout their lives, the persistent, sometimes unfounded fears, associated with clinical anxiety are so powerful that they can interfere with a person’s ability to live. Anxiety conditions can impact a person’s ability to maintain relationships, function at work, or engage in social activities. Symptoms can be physical, mental, and emotional in nature, and are overwhelming enough for some to seek relief through self-medication.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that those with an anxiety disorder are twice as likely to develop a substance abuse disorder as compared to others. Drugs and alcohol are often used as a form of self-medication in an attempt to reduce the impact of anxiety symptoms. Rather than help muffle those side effects, substance abuse often has the opposite effect. Instead, symptoms of anxiety disorders are exacerbated and worsened by the use of drugs or alcohol. This may lead to a person relying more heavily on substances in an attempt to silence symptoms, contributing to a strengthening cycle of abuse and addiction.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety is a larger term used to describe numerous conditions. It can present in a variety of ways and the severity of the symptoms can range from a constant hum in the background to an overwhelming, paralyzing wave of fear. Each form of anxiety shares some commonalities with others, but they each have a unique recommended approach to treatment.
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): This form of anxiety usually causes a person to feel a perpetual sense of dread for no particular reason. Their fears and stress can transition from thought to thought even if there is no connection between them. While they may interpret their feelings of dread as “typical”, these anxious thoughts are different from what others generally feel and can cause a person to feel paralyzed even if the fears they experience are not based in reality.
- Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD): Often referred to as “social phobia”, this form of anxiety causes a person to feel immense amounts of stress or fear when it comes to interacting with others. Any number of social activities can cause anxiety including participating in social activities, speaking in front of a crowd, fear of crowded places, and other forms of interacting with the public. While most people feel anxiety from time to time when it comes to being in front of crowds, social phobias are so powerful that they are often connected to other panic disorders. In some cases, those with social phobias can develop agoraphobia, which can cause some to sever their ties with the outside world almost completely.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): PTSD is one of the most widely-recognized anxiety disorders. This form of anxiety develops after a person has experienced a traumatic event that causes high levels of stress. Being in war, witnessing a violent crime, sexual assault, natural disasters, and other traumatic events can lead to its development. Symptoms of PTSD include nightmares, flashbacks, paranoia, anger, irritability, and insomnia.
- Panic Disorder: Panic disorders can often be identified by the experience of a panic attack. The sudden, overwhelming, uncontrollable sense of fear and dread can sometimes make a person feel as though they might die. Panic disorders are marked by both physical and mental symptoms including hyperventilating, sweating, dizziness, increased heart rate, chest pain, vomiting, and other upsetting experiences. In most cases, panic attacks are not triggered by actual sources of danger and episodes can last as long as 10 minutes before subsiding.
- Specific phobias: An irrational and debilitating fear of something is known as a phobia. Phobias may fixate on specific objects, experiences, or animals. The fear associated with the phobia is enough to make a person go out of their way to avoid connecting with it. In some cases, these phobias are so powerful and intrusive that they can interrupt a person’s daily life. Some common phobias include fear of heights, fear of flying, and fear of spiders.
Although anxiety takes on many forms, there are several signs and symptoms that are common between the variations. These include:
- Stomach pain
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Increased heart rate
- Decreased quality of relationships
- Decline in performance at work
- Overall dissatisfaction with quality of life
- A sense of fear most days
- Inability to manage fear
- Use of substances to try and silence symptoms
Anxiety and Addiction
Substance abuse and addiction occurs at higher rates in those with anxiety disorders as compared to the general population. This is true for other mental health conditions as well. The side effects of substance abuse are often seen as a way to cope with the symptoms of mental health disorders. For some, drugs and alcohol can temporarily provide relief from symptoms of anxiety. Although there may be a short-lived freedom, overall, substances tend to worsen a person’s overall condition. Substance abuse comes with its own set of side effects that can activate a person’s mental health condition as well. In addition to struggling with the symptoms of anxiety, a person will also now deal with side effects of substance abuse. This can worsen both the person’s pre-existing condition and increase their dependency on drugs or alcohol to feel “normal”.
While some may find temporary relief in the use of drugs or alcohol, substance abuse can put a person at risk for developing an addiction. Anxiety disorders are generally already accompanied by chemical imbalances in the brain. Misuse of drugs or alcohol further contribute to these imbalances and worsen a person’s mental state. In addition, if a person tries to stop using drugs or alcohol, the withdrawal symptoms associated with them can actually produce the same side effects as anxiety does.
Treating a dual-diagnosis like substance abuse and anxiety with someone can be difficult. It is often a sensitive subject that requires great care when navigating. These situations generally do not resolve themselves and require professional help in order to achieve success. While you can start having these conversations on your own, involving a professional to help facilitate the process is often the best route to take. Anxiety and substance abuse are both treatable with the right combination of therapies, medication, and treatments.
If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, addiction, or a co-occurring mental health disorder like anxiety, we are here to help. Give us a call at 888.855.6877 or send us a message below and one of our admissions counselors will do their best to get you the help you need.