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Anxiety and Addiction

Anxiety and addiction commonly occur together.

Anxiety is a term used to describe feelings of stress, worry and fear.

While it is perfectly normal to feel anxious occasionally – for example before an important work meeting or an exam, or when acute dangers are present – persistent anxiety can become an impairment to a person’s everyday life.

When a person experiences strong feelings of anxiety on a regular basis, we speak of an anxiety disorder.

The most common anxiety disorders are:

  • General Anxiety Disorder (GAD), meaning a person worries about things like money, health, family, work or study problems more often than not and finds it impossible to stop worrying
  • Social Anxiety Disorder (also known as Social Phobia), meaning a person is so afraid of being embarrassed or judged negatively by others they begin to avoid social situations altogether
  • Panic Disorder, meaning a person will experience frequent panic attacks associated with social situations (such as having to speak in front of people) and common sources of worry (health, money, family, etc)

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and Agoraphobia are also classified as anxiety disorders.

Anxiety disorders are much more common than most people realise.

According to the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, 20% of Australians will be affected by an anxiety disorder within their lifetime.

The numbers are especially high among people with substance abuse issues; 1 in 3 people battling alcohol or drug addictions also suffer from one or more types of anxiety disorder.

How do Anxiety and addiction relate to each other?

As people experiencing anxiety disorders are unable to calm their overwhelming worries or rising panic, drug and alcohol are often resorted to as a means of self-medication.

Substance use can have a numbing effect on the brain, meaning anxieties might be temporarily dulled enough for sufferers to get on with their day.

However, once the effects of drugs or alcohol wear off, the symptoms usually return with a vengeance.

If a person self-medicates over an extended period of time, their bodies tolerance for drugs and alcohol will increase, meaning they will require more and more of a substance to achieve any effect.

This can lead to alcohol and drug dependency – a condition which serves only to increase a person’s anxiety.

Worries about money can worsen as more and more of a person’s funds is spent on drugs and/or alcohol; social anxieties may inflate as the addict experiences shame and regret due to their drug use; symptoms of panic attacks (i.e. increased heart rate, dry mouth, uncontrollable shaking) might be exacerbated by intoxication.

How important is dual treatment?

If an addict presents with co-occurring anxiety and addiction, it is imperative to treat both conditions.

Going through the detox process can be a harrowing experience for patients without mental health disorders; for sufferers of anxiety the initial detox can intensify their symptoms tremendously.

In order to guide the patient through the first step to recovery, any history with anxiety has to be addressed directly; the same is true for the subsequent steps of treatment.

If a patient leaves a residential program equipped to deal with warning signs of impeding anxiety attacks and coping strategies to avoid relapsing into a cycle of self-medication, their chances for long-term recovery dramatically improve.

Find out more

Mental Health and Addiction
Diagnosing Mental Health Disorders
Common Co-Occurring Disorders
Mental Health Effects of Ice
Are Mental Health and Addiction Connected?

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