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Stress & Substance Abuse

When managed properly, stress can motivate us and inspire us to take a situation by the horns and deal with it. Stress is, after all, uncomfortable, so it only makes sense to try and remove it by responding to it. But what if that stress wasn’t managed properly? What if the stress was allowed to grow and fester, poisoning every other part of life? Instead of stepping up to the plate, you avoid it, you shun your responsibilities, you find distractions, and you shut down? That’s when stress goes from simply being a reaction to pressure to being something more acute and serious.

Stress vs. Stressor

As a word and a concept, “stress” tends to get used a lot – as recently as 2013, 77 percent of Americans reported physical problems caused by stress – but the word “stressor” is slightly less familiar. A stressor refers to something that something threatens your sense of well-being or an event takes place that makes you worry for your health, your financial security (73 percent of Americans name money as the number one cause of their stress), or the well-being of those around you. A similar number cite an uncertain job market and on-the-job issues, as their biggest stressor. Stress, on the other hand, is your reaction to the stressor, both in terms of how you feel and what you do For example, a stressor could be a loud noise or some bad news. Stress would be how the loud noise or bad news makes you feel (scared or annoyed) and how you react (you avoid the stressor or you are motivated to act against it).

Acute Stress and Chronic Stress

Stress can be categorized into two types, acute stress and chronic stress. Acute stress is the focused, concentrated stress as a result of an immediate stressor. Before a sports game, a player feels acute stress. A student taking an exam feels acute stress. On the other hand, chronic stress has a much longer timeframe. Dreading to go to an unforgiving, thankless job is chronic stress. Grinding out the days in a loveless marriage can cause chronic stress. Taking care of a special needs relative, and all the monotonous and frustrating tasks that involves, can easily lead to chronic stress. Both acute and chronic stress can lead to short-term and long-term physical and mental problems if left unresolved.

What Happens When I’m Stressed?

Stress Symptoms

Responses to stressors are not carved in stone – some people can respond to the same stressor in different ways every time the stressor occurs – but the symptoms of stress are generally the same for everyone:

  • Heightened state of alert
  • Increased breathing rate
  • Reduced immune system
  • Faster heartbeat
  • Slower digestion
  • Tense muscles

All these symptoms are the brain’s way of preparing for the famous “fight or flight” response, where quick actions and decisions must be taken to either confront, or escape, the stressor. In a time of crisis, the body’s resources are diverted away from non-essential systems, like digestion, and are sent to the systems that are primed for a fight, or flight, for survival, like the lungs and muscles. Meanwhile, the brain itself pumps out hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to keep our senses on heightened alert. If you’ve ever noticed that the world around you suddenly becomes much clearer after a stressor – you hear your surroundings with more clarity than before, for example – that is because the hormones your brain just released are making everything stand out in order for you to receive as much information you can (regardless of essentiality) to make a decision on what to do.

General Adaptation Syndrome

The way the body responds to a stressor is explained by the general adaptation syndrome. It categorizes the different “before, during and after” phases of a stress reaction into three steps:

  • Alarm
  • Resistance
  • Recovery or exhaustion

Alarm Stage

The “alarm” stage is the first reaction to the stressor. Your brain kicks in to a higher gear, the effects of which are described below.

  • Alarm
  • Resistance
  • Recovery or exhaustion

Resistance Stage

In the “resistance” stage, your brain decides on how best to respond to the stressor. The body tries to adapt to the stressor to resist its effects.

Recovery Stage

The third and final stage can be one of two things: “recovery,” when the stressor is no longer an issue and the stress reactions are no longer necessary, or “exhaustion,” when the body has had to resist stress for a prolonged period of time, depleting biological resources to the point of causing illness to the body (in the form of ulcers and cardiovascular problems) and mind (anxiety and depression).

Stress and Depression

When stress gets out of control – when the stressor is overwhelming (even from a quick, acute stressor), forcing the body into an extended resistance phase, or when the victim has pre-existing conditions that make them more prone to negative stress reactions – it can cause a number of significant and long-term problems, requiring multilayered treatment to control. In addition to the acute stressor mentioned above, people suffering from chronic stress are in danger of developing other health issues as a result of their long-term exposure to their stressors. Left unchecked, stress can even alter the physical structure of the brain, shrinking the part of the brain that is responsible for short-term memory and learning functions.

Signs of Depression

Tests on rats, which have similar reactions to stress as humans, showed the following signs of depression after being subjected to various stress factors:

  • Desolation and feelings of hopelessness
  • Reduced learning ability
  • Lower memory retention
  • Insomnia
  • Lack of energy

The tests suggest a strong connection between an unhealthy stress reaction and depression.

The Link Between Substance Abuse and Stress

When it comes to stress and substance abuse, the relationship is very catch-22; stress can cause substance abuse, and substance abuse can cause stress. In the former case, because stress can lead to depression in its victims, they might be tempted to try various kinds of drugs and alcohol to combat the depression, but not tackle the actual stress and/or the stressor. Stimulants, like cocaine, Ecstasy and the right doses of alcohol, can lift the user’s mood and boost energy and activity levels. The substances work by forcibly changing the brain’s chemistry, pumping out a hormone called dopamine.

When you do something good and feel pleasured and rewarded by the experiences, that’s your brain releasing dopamine. After a while, the brain reabsorbs the dopamine, returning you to normal. However, under the effects of stimulants, the brain continues to release dopamine, making an intense association between the intake of the illicit substances and the pleasurable feelings. However, the sensation is only temporary. When the effects of the drugs and/or alcohol wear off, the user experiences a drastic “comedown” effect, where their mind and body is plunged into withdrawal symptoms, of which the biggest effects are:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Sleep deprivation

Confronted with these sensations, the users often resort to taking more drugs and alcohol, oblivious to – or perhaps not caring about – the cycle of addiction and destruction that they are subjecting themselves to.

Teenagers are exposed to a number of stressors – academic pressure, peer pressure, parental expectations, and social expectations – and, unsurprisingly, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that teens who report high-stress levels are twice as likely to smoke cigarettes, drink, and experiment with drugs than teens who reported lower levels of stress.

Treating Stress

Because unhealthy stress and behavior are so closely related, one of the optimal kinds of therapy for dealing with the harmful effects of that stress is cognitive behavioral therapy. A psychologist will work with patients suffering from stress-relaxed anxiety or depression on how to recognize negative thought patterns and then devise ways to change the behavior caused by those thought patterns. If the patient is also suffering from a substance abuse problem brought about by their stress, treatment will first involve rehabilitating them. This may involve being physically removed from the environment that fuels the addiction and the people who enable it, and putting the user in a safe, controlled and healthy facility where their mental and physical craving for the drugs can be broken, with or without the use of prescribed and monitored medication.

At Futures of Palm Beach, we offer a number of specially customized and personalized treatment plans to help you or your loved one overcome the damaging effects of stress.

Whatever the situation that caused the stress, anxiety and depression, there is a way out of the cycle of worry, hopelessness and self-harm. You’ll never be able to remove all stressors from life, but you can learn how to deal with them in a positive, healthy and constructive way. Call us today to find out how to begin that journey.