How Stress Increases Craving Behavior in Addicts

How Stress Increases Craving Behavior in Addicts

Stress is an established risk factor in the development of substance abuse, addictive behavior and relapse vulnerability. Stress refers to the process of perceiving, appraising and responding to a harmful, threatening or challenging event or stimuli. Stress can be emotional, psychological or physical and when a human experiences stress, stress response or an adaptive “fight or flight’ process begins to provide protection from the stressful event or stimuli.

Stress does not always have to be “bad”, as some stressful events and challenges can inspire and motivate individuals to perform, compete and accomplish things. However, prolonged, recurring or chronic stress, as well as intense uncontrollable situations or trauma, can be too overwhelming for an individual to cope with. Stress occurring in any of these forms is “bad” stress and increases the risk for maladaptive behaviors, including addiction. Therefore, stress can lead to the development of substance abuse, continued use, addictive behavior and relapse.

How Stress Causes Maladaptive Addictive Behavior

Scientists have found that both physical and psychological stress causes changes in specific regions of the brain that influence behavioral control and impulsivity. Neurobiological evidence shows that bad stress can affect the brain’s prefrontal cortex functioning, which is responsible for many functions, including controlling and inhibiting impulses, regulating distress, focusing and shifting attention, decision-making responses, and considering alternative solutions or consequences before acting. In summary, when individuals experience intense or overwhelming levels of stress, the brain suffers chemical changes that say, “act now” and “protect yourself”. People do not think things through, and they act impulsively, doing what they can to cope or deal with the stressful event. A decrease in behavioral and cognitive control caused by stress increases the risk for maladaptive and addictive behavior.

The Role of Stress in Addiction Recovery

For addicts, using drugs, alcohol or other substances to cope is habitual or automatic. When stress is experienced, an individual may feel both physical and psychological cravings to use or engage in the behavior that was performed so many times before. Addictive substances and behaviors are chemically mind-altering, and the brain remembers these things that made it feel “better” in the past. When a person has associated, say alcohol, with providing relief, relaxation or pleasure in the past, overcoming these thoughts and feelings is extremely difficult, and stress will trigger cravings for the substances or behaviors that provided these comforts, aids and pleasures.

Because stress is a major relapse trigger during addiction recovery, it is highly advised that addicts address stress-related issues during treatment. Stress is a part of everyday life and can’t be avoided, so learning to deal with stress in a healthy way is imperative. Studies show that people who ignore or avoid stress are twice as likely to develop cravings that cause addiction relapse than individuals who try to work through stressors. Distress tolerance and coping skills are taught and practiced in several addiction treatment programs, as well as learning how to identify stress and relapse triggers, minimize stress in one’s life, and how to work through stress when it cannot be avoided.

Learning to Cope with Stress during Addiction Recovery

If the stress in your life is causing addictive behaviors or threatening relapse, you can call our toll-free number for help. Our addiction counselors are available 24 hours a day to help you find the programs, treatment and services you need to find, achieve or get back on track with recovery.