Anxiety and Substance Abuse

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Updated 08/24/2023

We have schedules to keep, tasks to complete, and fears that keep us awake at night. Everyone we know, it seems, has something to worry about and something to prove. In that environment, it’s a little vogue to suggest that you’re dealing with an anxiety disorder. If you’re nervous, you’re not so much ill as just modern.

While articles like this can be funny and flip, they can mask the very real dangers that come with anxiety disorders. These aren’t problems that people fake in order to fit in, and they’re not concerns that anyone would want or wish for. Instead, they’re very real mental illnesses that can impact the way you think, react, and handle the world around you. Without help, these are the kinds of disorders that can get a lot worse.

Understanding Anxiety Disorders

A feeling of anxiety comes with a host of physical symptoms. Your heart races, your muscles tense, your pupils dilate, and your stomach clenches. All of these responses prepare your body to take action against a threat you’re facing right now. That threat could be serious enough that it could end your life.

Typically, anxious feelings like this last for just a moment or so. You face the threat, and then you move forward with your life. But there are times when the feelings simply will not go away, even though the threat has faded. When that happens, an anxiety disorder is typically in play.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) suggests that there are numerous different types of anxiety disorders, such as:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Panic disorder/panic attacks
  • Separation anxiety
  • Phobias
  • Social anxiety disorder

All of these disorders are slightly different. Different things trigger their feelings of anxiety, or the ways in which their symptoms manifest are a little different, but they all have a sense of fear at their core. These are disorders in which something that should be considered harmless or benign prompts feelings of terror that are too strong to ignore and too intense to forget.

For some people, according to the American Psychological Association, those feelings get stronger on the anniversary of a traumatic event. When a specific date comes marching in, and that date reminds them of something terrible that happened, they feel a new surge of anxiety that’s hard to ignore.

For others, those feelings just never really go away. These people may feel as though they’ve just always been a little anxious or worried, and as they’ve grown older, they may find that those old feelings get stronger and stronger until they’re impossible to control.

People who have anxiety disorders aren’t alone. In fact, the National Institute of Mental Health suggests that about 18 percent of Americans 18 and older have an anxiety disorder. That makes anxiety a relatively common mental illness among adults, yet people who have these disorders may not reach out to others for help. Even though they might find that others could help them, they may attempt to solve the problem alone. Often, that means they begin using substances.

Why Self-Medicate Anxiety?

For people with anxiety disorders, drugs can be a common, everyday part of life. For example, a man writing for The Atlantic reports that he uses alcohol in concert with his anxiety medication in order to handle the stress of public speaking. The benzodiazepines he takes help to calm his mind to some degree, but using alcohol helps to blunt his nervousness yet more. With both medications on board, the man feels like he’s handling his anxiety appropriately.

This sort of thinking isn’t uncommon. People with anxiety feel nervous and jittery, as though their lives are on fast-forward, and many addictive drugs come with numbing and sedating properties. They seem to slow things down and make them more manageable. They seem to take the edge off anxiety, but in reality, these drugs can make anxiety harder to live with.

For one thing, blending sedating drugs with anxiety medications can mean putting the body in danger of an overdose. Both of these substances work on parts of the mind that regulate breathing. Adding them together can mean sedating the mind to such a degree that people stop breathing and stop living.

Plus, some types of anxiety disorders just get worse when drugs are in the mix. A person with anxiety on a hallucinogenic drug can have an experience that’s both terrifying and hard to forget, which can trigger an anxious episode. Someone with phobias taking sedatives can feel those phobias grow stronger when sobriety returns, which can lead the person to avoid sobriety altogether.

Putting anxiety and addiction together just isn’t a good idea. Thankfully, if it happens to you, there are things you can do in order to get better.

Treatment for Anxiety Disorders

Of those who have anxiety disorders, only about one-third get treatment, says the ADAA. That’s a shame, as treatment really does have the power to help people to get better. In fact, the American Psychological Association suggests that some people with anxiety feel better in just a few sessions with a mental health specialist.

The treatments people need are deeply dependent on the types of anxiety disorders they have. For example, people with phobias can benefit from an exposure therapy in which they retrain the brain to handle the trigger without overreacting. People afraid of spiders, for example, might begin by talking about spiders, then looking at photos of spiders, then looking at someone else holding a spider, and then holding a spider.

People with panic attacks, on the other hand, might learn meditation techniques, so they can learn to calm the brain and the body when feelings of nervousness begin to arise. Rather than allowing those feelings to grow and spread, they’ll learn how to calm the mind and ignore the issue without drugs.

Clearly, there are proven techniques that can help, and for people with addictions in addition to anxiety, techniques can be included that are specific to substance use and abuse. People in these co-occurring programs might spend time learning more about how addiction works and how substance abuse works, and they might spend time understanding why use doesn’t make anxiety better. When this kind of therapy is provided in tandem with anxiety therapy, amazing recoveries can take place.

That kind of recovery is available to you at The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake. We provide a robust co-occurring disorder treatment program that can give you the support you’ll need to get well. Please call us, and we’ll tell you more about how to enroll.

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When you call our team, you will speak to a Recovery Advocate who will answer any questions and perform a pre-assessment to determine your eligibility for treatment. If eligible, we will create a treatment plan tailored to your specific needs. If The Recovery Village is not the right fit for you or your loved one, we will help refer you to a facility that is. All calls are 100% free and confidential.

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