The Connection Between Anxiety and Substance Abuse

The Connection Between Anxiety and Substance Abuse

It’s well known that substance use disorders often co-occur with PTSD. However, it’s less understood why anxiety and substance abuse often co-occur as well. There are many other anxiety disorders besides PTSD. A list of common anxiety disorders includes the following:

• Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
• Social phobia (or social anxiety disorder aka SAD)
• Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
• Panic disorder

What’s not always understood is how these anxiety disorders reinforce substance abuse. They can also be exacerbated by substance abuse if the latter occurs first. For example, some studies show that nearly half of patients with a substance abuse disorder also have an anxiety disorder or another mood disorder. Studies that focus on military veterans or first responders often find that anxiety disorders co-occur with addiction at an even higher rate.

Do Anxiety Disorders Cause Substance Abuse?

Not only does research often show the co-occurrence of anxiety disorders and substance abuse, but it also tends to uncover that anxiety might be the root cause of a substance use disorder. The anxiety disorder often predates the substance abuse, and treatment for anxiety tends to decrease the severity of the substance abuse. A good example is one study that looked at a group of children who were treated at some point for an anxiety disorder. Seven years later, the ones who had responded to treatment had fewer instances of substance abuse vs. the ones who were still suffering from anxiety.

The conclusion is that anxiety disorders that form in childhood and are left untreated are more likely to include substance abuse later down the road. Why are anxiety and substance abuse so connected? There are several different factors that explain why anxiety can lead to a substance use disorder. The following reasons are a sampling of common factors:

• Turning to drugs or alcohol as a means of escape
• Substances counter anxiety and make one feel normal
• Anxiety makes the person impulsive and more likely to use drugs or alcohol

Anxiety disorders can sometimes make addiction harder to treat as well. For example, a study showed that 73% of those who were treated for substance abuse without anxiety remained sober for six months after treatment. However, only 40% of people who suffered from both an anxiety disorder and a substance use disorder remained sober for six months.

Anxiety and Substance Abuse Must Be Treated Together

Treating anxiety and substance abuse together is paramount for lasting recovery success. Treating substance abuse without also treating any present anxiety disorder is generally not useful. The underlying anxiety disorder will bring the patient back to substance abuse again and again. The key point to understand is that anxiety is often the person’s primary reason for substance abuse. If anxiety disorders aren’t treated along with substance abuse, the primary reason for abusing remains.

Anxiety disorders are similar to substance use disorders in that they both reinforce pathways in the brain to repeat the cycle of certain behavior patterns. Treating anxiety and substance abuse means rewiring the brain and creating new pathways away from the previous ones.

The Relationship Between Substance Use Disorder and Types of Anxiety

If you have anxiety, you have a higher risk of developing a substance use disorder. Roughly 20% of Americans who have anxiety or another mood disorder also have a substance use disorder. Additionally, 20% of those with a substance use disorder have co-occurring anxiety or another mood disorder. As previously mentioned, anxiety can precede and cause substance abuse, but substance abuse can also result in various symptoms of anxiety. Let’s take a look at the relationships between three specific types of anxiety and substance abuse.

Social Anxiety

People who have social anxiety may pursue alcohol or another substance in order to lessen their anxiety in social situations. Alcohol use is more common in people with social anxiety. Abuse of alcohol is more likely to develop after symptoms of this disorder were already in play.


Post-traumatic stress disorder and substance use often occur together. People with PTSD may use drugs or alcohol to relieve symptoms, but substance use is likely to make PTSD worse.

Panic Disorder

Alcohol or drug use can actually cause panic attacks, but that also means they can trigger panic attacks in someone who already has a history of panic attacks. Substance abuse usually starts before or at the same time as symptoms of panic disorder.

In most cases, treating drug or alcohol abuse does not eliminate anxiety symptoms. Both disorders must be treated together in order to lessen the risk of relapse and get on the path to lasting sobriety.

Effective Treatments For Anxiety and Substance Abuse

As co-occurring disorders, substance abuse and anxiety need to be treated at the same time. In order to treat anxiety along with a substance use disorder, the therapy must help the patient’s brain build new pathways in the opposite direction. A quality dual diagnosis treatment center will use various treatment modalities to achieve this rewiring effect on the brain. Some of these effective treatments include the following:

• Exercise therapy
Yoga therapy
• Psychotherapy
Massage therapy
Acupuncture therapy
Meditation therapy

Psychotherapy covers a number of talk therapies that are often used in treatment for drug or alcohol abuse. Psychotherapy is also used to treat anxiety alone. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, dialectal behavioral therapy and eye movement and desensitization reprocessing therapy are three common types of psychotherapy. These treatments help identify certain patterns within the patient’s behavior as well as triggers for the behavior. The therapist then helps the patient come up with strategies to cope with the triggers that don’t include using a substance like alcohol or drugs.

Exercise therapy is also a common treatment as research shows that people who engage in regular exercise are less likely to have severe anxiety symptoms. Exercise actually works to decrease anxiety in general. It can also diffuse anxiety, which makes it a good coping strategy for anxiety triggers.

Meditation and mindfulness are often promoted in the treatment of co-occurring disorders. Both foster a greater sense of awareness and can help patients recognize negative patterns and negative thoughts before they trigger anxiety or other symptoms.

Substance Abuse Treatment At New Method Wellness

New Method Wellness is a dual diagnoses facility for the treatment of drug abuse, alcohol abuse and mood disorders like anxiety and depression. At New Method Wellness, we believe in effective and evidence-based treatment programs tailored to individual cases. We specialize in co-occurring disorders like anxiety co-occurring with drug or alcohol abuse.

If you or a loved one are struggling with abusing a substance like drugs or alcohol as well as anxiety, contact us today to find out how to get help and start on the road to recovery.

For more information about our Addiction Treatment Programs call 866.951.1824 today!

It’s Time For A New Method


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