Anxiety Disorders and Addiction

Most people will feel anxious at one point or another. For example, you may feel anxious about an exam or a meeting with your boss. You may feel anxious about making a big decision, or about your finances. Temporary anxiety is one thing, but what does it mean to have an anxiety disorder? According to the National Institute on Mental Health, for those with anxiety disorders, the anxiety does not go away. In fact, it usually gets worse over time. Anxiety disorders are characterized by persistent worry and fear— symptoms that often interfere with daily priorities such as work, school, and relationships.

Today, more Americans suffer from anxiety disorders than any other type of mental illness. Over 30 percent of adults in the United States experience an anxiety disorder at some time in their lives.

The symptoms of anxiety disorders can be both physical and psychological, and can range from mild to severe. In efforts to cope with these symptoms, many individuals will turn to drugs and alcohol. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimates that those suffering from clinical anxiety are twice as likely to abuse drugs than the general population. The problem is, self-medicating anxiety with drugs can worsen the negative symptoms, and simultaneously lead to addiction.

Who is Prone to Anxiety Disorders?

There are more than 40 million Americans suffering from an anxiety disorder today. However, women are more likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder than men. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), from adolescence to age 50, women are twice as likely to develop an anxiety disorder than men. They are also more likely to develop a secondary mental health disorder, like depression, alongside their anxiety.

Anxiety disorders also tend to occur earlier in women, putting teen girls especially at risk. Young women and girls who show signs of obsessive thoughts, phobias, and constant worry may be showing early signs of an anxiety disorder. Keep in mind that the earlier years are also some of the most common for experimenting with drugs and alcohol. If your young one is showing signs of clinical anxiety, using drugs or drinking alcohol can make her symptoms worse—and put her at greater risk for addiction.

Types of Anxiety Disorders (and Their Symptoms)

Anxiety comes in many forms. Different types of anxiety disorders show different symptoms, and affect a person differently.

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): Generalized anxiety disorder presents itself as excessive dread or worry, without any specific focus. The symptoms persist on most days, for at least 6 months at a time. It may affect a person’s health, work, social interactions, and everyday routines. Symptoms include restlessness, irritability, difficulty concentrating, disrupted sleep patterns, and most of all, the inability to control feelings of worry.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly referred to as PTSD, can develop after a person experiences a very traumatic event. While we often hear this diagnosis among war veterans, it can come about from abuse, assault, death, or even natural disaster. PTSD is very common in women, especially those who have faced physical, sexual, or emotional abuse in their lifetime. PTSD also, very commonly, leads to substance abuse. 55 to 99 percent of women in drug treatment report a history of trauma.
  • Panic Disorder (PD): Individuals struggling with panic disorder have recurrent and unexpected panic attacks. These are sudden periods of intense fear or anxiety that come on quickly. During a panic attack, a person may experience an accelerated heartrate, excessive sweating or shaking, shortness of breath, feeling smothered, and feelings of impending doom that they can’t control.
  • Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD): Social anxiety disorder, also called social phobia, is characterized by a general and often unfounded fear of interacting with others. This may include a phobia of crowded places, fear of public speaking, and worry of going out to parties or in public. They fear how others will see them, judge them, or embarrass them. As a result, they usually avoid social situations altogether.
  • Other Phobia-related Anxiety Disorders: Social anxiety disorder is one type of phobia-related disorder, but there are many other forms. This includes Agoraphobia, Separation Anxiety Disorder, and specific phobia disorders such as acrophobia (fear of heights). Phobia anxiety disorders are characterized by a debilitating fear of a particular thing or situation.
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): OCD is a type of anxiety disorder that stems from obsessive thinking and behaviors. Those with obsessive-compulsive disorder feel a constant and uncontrollable urge to repeat the same rituals (obsessions) or behaviors (compulsions) over and over – if they do not, it causes great anxiety.

The Link Between Anxiety and Addiction

No matter the type, any anxiety disorder can lead to substance abuse and addiction. When an anxiety disorder co-exists with a substance use disorder, it is called dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorders.

Today, about 20 percent of Americans with an anxiety or mood disorder also have a substance use disorder. The question remains, why are these disorders so connected?

There are many factors that link substance addiction to anxiety, the most common being self-medication. Often, people with anxiety disorders will try to self-manage their symptoms with drugs and alcohol. Drugs and alcohol can provide a temporary relief or escape from negative thoughts, and as a result, can become a short-term coping mechanism. Long-term, however, drug and alcohol use can exacerbate symptoms of anxiety. In addition, people with anxiety tend to experience worse withdrawal symptoms than those solely battling substance use. Withdrawal symptoms often include intensified nervousness, agitation, restlessness, insomnia, irritability, and obsessive fears.

Biochemical factors may also play a part in a person’s vulnerability to anxiety and addiction. Research shows that mental health disorders like anxiety and substance use disorders affect the same areas of the brain. As a result, both can be triggered by chemical imbalances in the brain—such as low levels of serotonin, which helps control a person’s mood, sleep, energy levels, and other functions.

Treating Co-Occurring Anxiety and Substance Use Disorders

Co-occurring anxiety and addictive disorders require very specialized, integrated, and multi-dimensional treatment. Keep in mind that not all rehab facilities are equipped with this level of care. Integrated, dual diagnosis treatment requires that an anxiety disorder and a substance use disorder be treated at the same time and in the same place. It requires assessing how both disorders are interrelated, and how treatment can be unified for the most successful chance at recovery.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), treatment for co-occurring anxiety and substance use disorders should involve:

  • Helping clients get to root of their anxiety (and in turn, drug abuse)
  • Teaching the client that full recovery from both disorders is possible
  • Showing the client healthy coping mechanisms to manage drug cravings
  • Giving the client practical skills and methods for handling anxious thoughts
  • Helping the client identify obsessive and addictive patterns
  • Motivating the client to make changes in their life and attitudes

Without integrated dual diagnosis treatment, it is likely that a person will not recover successfully from both disorders. They may even feel overwhelmed in a one-dimensional treatment environment – for example, at a drug rehab center that does not provide therapeutic support for their anxiety disorder, too. This is because quitting drugs or alcohol, after an addiction has developed, can put a person into a crushing withdrawal state – in which symptoms of anxiety and depression often surface or get worse.

Getting the Help You Deserve

If you or a loved one is battling addiction, anxiety, or a combination of the two, know that it is not uncommon. Millions of Americans struggle with these every day. Remember, women are especially prone to co-occurring disorders like anxiety and addiction. There is no need to be ashamed or scared. Help is available for you. Recovery is possible for you.

Anxiety and substance abuse treatment is not one-size-fits-all. Not every treatment center is created equal, and not every treatment center is equipped to handle dual diagnosis cases like this. Enrolling in an integrated treatment program for co-occurring disorders can help you manage your symptoms and put you on track to the happy and healthy life you deserve.

Call Turnbridge at 877-581-1793 to learn about our dual diagnosis programs for young men and women battling addiction and anxiety. We are always here for you.