Anxiety disorders – including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, OCD social anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and phobias – are debilitating conditions that significantly alter the functionality and enjoyment of a person’s life. Many people may suffer from more than one disorder under this anxiety umbrella, or another neurobehavioral disorder, such as ADHD, which complicates the diagnosis. This is known as comorbidity, and it is unfortunately frequently compounded with substance abuse.
The connection between substance abuse and anxiety exists on two levels. On one level, individuals with anxiety conditions may self-medicate through the use of substances as a means of suppressing their extreme symptoms. On the other level, abusing substances both increases one’s risk of developing anxiety symptoms, and makes pre-existing symptoms worse.*
Anxiety disorders cause serious physical and mental symptoms that vary greatly from person-to-person and by condition. Some of the common symptoms include:
- fast heartbeat or heart palpitations
- dizziness or faintness
- Restlessness, insomnia, or nightmares
- difficulty breathing
- tingling sensations
- headaches and sore muscles
- racing thoughts, uncontrollable worries, and intense fear.
These symptoms can severely affect the sufferer’s quality of life, so it isn’t uncommon for someone with these conditions to turn to alcohol or other substances in the hopes of managing their experience.
In our culture, it’s become common to say, “I need a drink” after a stressful day. Unfortunately, not only is excessive alcohol consumption unhealthy for the body, it is unhealthy for the mind. Alcohol depresses the central nervous system, offering its consumers the calming effect they crave, but only temporarily. The inevitable withdrawal from alcohol disrupts the brain, magnifying anxiety symptoms. Even for those who don’t have an anxiety disorder, excessive alcohol consumption can cause anxiety problems. This creates a vicious cycle in which the appearance of severe anxiety symptoms leads to self-medicating with alcohol, and the aftermath of excessive alcohol consumption leads to more severe anxiety symptoms.
The use of drugs, both illegal and even legal, to manage anxiety can also create this rebound effect, and sometimes prompt the beginnings of symptoms in those who do not have an anxiety disorder. Well-known illegal drugs, such as cocaine, affect the brain’s neurotransmitters, and their withdrawal exacerbates anxiety symptoms. Even the extensive use of caffeine can worsen anxiety, triggering an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, and feelings of jitteriness or panic.
Regardless of the substance, the use of excess substances to manage anxiety symptoms, or even just as a means of managing a stressful day at the office or at school, is clearly not an effective, long-term solution for dealing with these problems. In many cases, it can become the problem or exacerbate the problem. Aside from its strong effects on the brain’s anxiety response, substance abuse leads to a decline in functioning all on its own through its negative effect on concentration, memory, and socialization.
Clinical studies have demonstrated that being diagnosed with a substance abuse problem or an anxiety disorder steeply increases the risk of the person developing the other condition. This is particularly true for sufferers of panic disorders, wherein the individual experiences overwhelming panic attacks – often compared to a heart attack in their intensity. Occasionally, these symptoms are so severe are sometimes so severe that the sufferer has difficulties leaving his or her house (referred to as agoraphobia).
If you or your child is experiencing cognitive or emotional problems associated with anxiety or substance abuse disorders, a comprehensive assessment may help. There are a wide variety of behavioral therapies that can assist an individual with these conditions in re-training their fear response, as well as their coping mechanisms. Suffering with these conditions can often feel hopeless, but they never should be; there are a wealth of approaches and treatments available to assist these individuals with managing their symptoms, as well as rebuilding and experiencing their life without the use of damaging substances.
*Williams, Sarah, Ph.D. “Substance Abuse and Anxiety Disorders.” Substance Abuse and Anxiety Disorders, www.rehabs.com