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Answers About Anxiety – Understanding the Connection Between Substance Use and Anxiety Disorders

young girl in black hooded sweatshirt with chalk drawings above head depicting anxiety - anxiety disorders

Anxiety is an unavoidable part of our lives.

But for most people, anxiety is felt in specific and limited situations. We feel a little anxious when we are going to meet someone new, for example. Or maybe we get the anxious jitters before a speech, a test, or visit to the doctor. Nervous energy and feelings of insecurity are natural responses to a variety of circumstances we encounter from time to time.

But some people are experiencing intense anxiety much or all of the time—even when there doesn’t appear to be a specific cause. That sort of ongoing anxiety is difficult to deal with and could end up contributing to the development of a substance use disorder.

Varieties of Anxieties – It Isn’t Just One Thing

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has identified five major kinds of anxiety that people experience. They include:

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder – persistent feelings of worry or tension even when it is not clear what might be causing those feelings
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder – an inability to escape patterns of repetitive behavior (like repeated hand washing, for example) or upsetting thoughts
  • Panic Disorder – experiencing intense fear and related physical symptoms without an identifiable cause
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – an inability to leave traumatic events in the past, which leads to re-experiencing them as well as the negative emotions that accompany them
  • Social Anxiety/Phobia Disorders – overwhelming feelings of awkwardness in social situations, including agoraphobia, separation anxiety disorder, or any of several other phobias

Nearly one third of adults in the United States are dealing with some kind of anxiety disorder. These disorders are somewhat more prevalent among women, but many men experience them as well. Issues related to psychological development, genetic predisposition, environmental stressors, and trauma of various kinds are all potential risk factors for developing an anxiety disorder.

Signs and Symptoms – What Does Anxiety Feel Like?

We have noted that almost everyone feels anxious from time to time. Still, it can be useful to consider the variety of ways anxiety can feel. Otherwise, we might misinterpret anxiety as something else, which in turn can make it more difficult to address effectively.

Anxiety symptoms may include some or all of the following in various combinations:

  • Agitation and irritability
  • Intense worry that you cannot control
  • Shaking, sweating, or increased heart rate, indicating a panic attack
  • Period of hyperactivity and/or extreme bouts of fatigue
  • Withdrawal from social obligations to avoid feelings of awkwardness
  • Muscle tension that cannot be linked to recent physical activity
  • Constant feelings of restlessness
  • An increased tendency to wake up in the middle of the night or general insomnia
  • Managing anxious feelings by relying on alcohol, prescription drugs, or illicit drugs

That last bullet point—managing anxiety via drugs or alcohol—is, of course, directly related to an increase in the risk of developing a substance use disorder.

Anxiety, Addiction — and the Amygdala?

The area in our brains that is responsible for the processing of emotions, the activation of our survival instincts, and the storing of our memories is called the amygdala. Because it plays a role in the assessment of threats, the amygdala is central to feelings of anxiety—whether we’re talking about the everyday sort of anxious feelings or the more damaging varieties mentioned above.

A 2015 study revealed that, “Anxiety disorders and alcohol use disorder in humans are both defined by altered amygdala structure and function.” The authors of the study go on to suggest that the ultimate result of the altered structure and function of the amygdala is a change in the regulation of behaviors relating to both anxiety and alcohol.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse has established that the amygdala triggers cravings once a person begins taking drugs or using alcohol. Brain chemistry is changed by ongoing excessive use of dangerous substances. As time passes, the cravings become increasingly difficult to resist. Meanwhile, intense feelings of anxiety may be on the rise and lead to an ongoing cycle of substance use intended to lessen anxiety followed by increased feelings of anxiety about the drug use or issues related to it.

One study suggests that nearly half of all those battling a substance use disorder also struggle to one degree or another with anxiety. These co-occurring disorders must be addressed together in no small part because the evidence suggests that people with anxiety disorders are more likely to relapse after they leave a residential treatment setting.

We Can Help You Overcome Anxiety and Addiction

Co-occurring disorders involving anxiety and substance use offer plenty of challenges, but it is essential that both disorders are tackled during treatment. At Bel Aire Recovery Center, we learn the history and experiences of each individual that may be contributing to anxiety or substance use—or both.

From there, our team of compassionate experts will create a personalized treatment plan, taking full advantage of strategies ranging from changes in diet and physical activity levels to cognitive behavioral therapy (or other forms of therapy) and even non-addictive medications that regulate mood.

We understand that you may be feeling anxiety about many things—including the process of looking for help with your anxiety disorder. That’s a cruel trap, but one it is important to overcome so that you can get the help you need to start living your life soberly and calmly. You can overcome your fear and reach out for help. And when you do, we’ll be here to help you change your life.

For more information about programs offered at Bel Aire Recovery Center, including Kansas alcohol treatment, contact us today. We are ready to help you transform your life from drug and alcohol abuse.

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