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Understanding Stress and Addiction

Addiction can sometimes look like an attempt to deal with stress in a way that doesn’t quite work out. While there may be some temporary relief from stress through a substance or behaviour, that relief is short-lived, so more is needed in order to continue coping with stress. Because many addictions bring with them further stress, such as symptoms of physical and psychological withdrawal, more of the addictive substance or behaviour is needed to cope with the additional stress involved.

Although stress, on its own, does not actually cause addiction, it can certainly play a significant role for many people. Recognition of the role of stress in addiction developing, and of the importance of stress management in preventing and overcoming addiction, is crucial in helping people avoid the suffering that addiction can bring to those affected by addictions.

One explanation for the strong linkage between stress and addiction is the self-medication theory, which suggests that the person may use substances or behaviours to cope with tension associated with life stressors or to relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression resulting from an event.

High emotional stress is associated with loss of control over impulses and an inability to delay gratification. Chronic stress decreases gray matter volume in the brain region that is associated with cognitive control and stress regulation. The part of the prefrontal cortex that is involved in rational thinking, gets shut down by stress. The stressed brain loses the ability to be reflective and becomes automatic.

So, how can you help your clients to manage their stress levels and avoid relapse? Here are some ideas:

Take a Short Walk

Exercise can be a great stress reliever because it helps blow off steam and releases endorphins. Even if it is just 5 or 10 minutes, moving the body for a bit will help.

Taking a walk can bring the benefits of exercise—both short-term and long-term—and as a bonus, it gets someone out of the stressful situation temporarily. This can provide some perspective to return in a new frame of mind.

Breathe Deeply

If someone is not in a position to leave where they are, they can feel better right away by just taking 5 deep belly breaths. Getting more oxygen into the body and releasing physical tension are two benefits of breathing exercises. This can be done anytime or anywhere, even if the demanding situation isn't letting up.

Reframe The Situation

It is easy to intensify the experience of stressful situations by the way we look at them. If you can look teach your client to look at a situation differently, they may be able to put it into a different perspective —one that causes less stress. Mental and emotional stress can be caused by pessimism, type A traits, and other self-sabotaging thought patterns. Teaching your client to change the way they look at things can be very useful when in a stressful situation.

Write It Down

Introduce your client to journaling. It doesn't have to be pages of writing, it can just be random thoughts or a list of what's causing them to feel stressed. It is often a powerful exercise to just get things out of whirling around in the head and onto paper.


Blog Post written by:
Executive Assistant