Anxiety Disorders and Drug Addiction

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorders in the United States, affecting an estimated 40 million people age 18 and up.1

This article will explore the difference between routine anxiety and an anxiety disorder, the link between anxiety and addiction, and how to get help if you or someone you know is suffering from co-occurring conditions, such as anxiety and substance use disorders.

Feeling Anxious vs. Having an Anxiety Disorder

Anxiety is a big word, covering a wide variety of conditions and symptoms that affect millions of people. While the concept of anxiety is universally understood, the mechanics and implications of the medical state can surprise people, in addition to the connection between anxiety and drug addiction. Recovery is always possible, but part of treatment comes from grasping the full scope of anxiety and its association with substance abuse.
woman drinking alcohol to cover up her anxiety disorder

For example, the commonly accepted concept of anxiety involves feelings of worry or dread, especially with regards to an imminent event, or an event where the outcome is not known (such as an exam, a job interview, or even the conclusion of a marquee sports game).

In terms of a medical diagnosis, however, anxiety can mean a number of different mental health conditions gathered under the umbrella term of anxiety disorders.2

While they do cause people to experience worry, dread, or stress, the key point with these anxiety disorders being mental health conditions is that the affected person is significantly negatively impacted by their symptoms and often powerless to prevent or control the symptoms once they have taken effect.

An individual’s daily life may become markedly compromised because of the debilitating effects of anxiety. People who experience anxious moments, but who do not have anxiety disorders, will be able to go about their day when the crisis passes; people with anxiety disorders cannot stop the effects of their anxiety disrupting their everyday life. Professional, social, familial, and academic obligations will be interrupted and damaged by the sense of panic, stress, and foreboding that comes as a part of the condition.

A person with this kind of anxiety might lose sleep and be unable to focus on hobbies, relax, or cope with even small problems.1

Women and Anxiety

Gender can make a difference. Women are twice as likely to have an anxiety disorder as men, and women are more likely to develop anxiety disorders earlier in their lives than men are.3

These differences may be due to variations in estrogen- and progesterone-mediated brain chemistry between the genders and the development of a relatively stronger and more persistent flight-or-fight response.4,5

Different Types of Anxiety

Anxiety disorder comes in many forms. Generalized anxiety disorder is a common presentation, where people excessively fret and stress over everyday issues, such as their relationships, financial situations, health, or even having anxiety itself. These worries occur whether or not there is a tangible reason for them to feel this way (i.e., the relationship is secure, finances are good, and they have no health concerns).6

Then there is panic disorder, where individuals are gripped by such fear and tension that they have difficulty breathing, tremble uncontrollably, and feel nauseated. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, this is a serious form of anxiety disorder that affects 2%–3% of the U.S. population in any given year, and is twice as common in women as in men.7

What Is Social Anxiety Disorder?

Social anxiety disorder is a potentially paralyzing fear of being judged by other people or embarrassing oneself in a public setting. Individuals who have social anxiety disorder may go to great lengths to limit their interactions with others, perhaps even eschewing opportunities to make friends or business contacts, or go on dates.

As with anxiety in general, this is not simple shyness; those with social anxiety disorder cannot simply “get over” their discomfort, and forcing them into a public situation, or one where they have to interact with another individual, can be traumatizing and debilitating for them.8

People may start to feel the impact of social anxiety disorder even weeks before they are due to meet with another person, or they might experience panic if they believe they are being judged or watched by others in a large setting. Again, as with anxiety overall, there may be no basis for this assumption, but the anxiety disorder will be relentless, nonetheless.

Signs of an Anxiety Attack

While the various anxiety disorders are diagnosed based on somewhat different sets of diagnostic criteria, some general signs and symptoms associated with anxiety disorders include:1

  • Feeling nervous, irritable, or on edge.
  • Having a sense of impending danger, panic, or doom.
  • Tachycardia or increased heart rate.
  • Rapid breathing, sweating, and/or trembling.
  • Feeling weak or tired.
  • Poor concentration.
  • Sleep difficulties.
  • Gastrointestinal issues (e.g., nausea, stomach upset).

Ways to Stop or Prevent an Anxiety Attack

Self-care and stress-relieving activities may help manage anxiety and relieve some symptoms when an anxiety attack occurs. These activities include:8

  • Deep breathing.
  • Exercise.
  • Meditation.
  • Mindfulness.

The Cycle of Drugs and Anxiety

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, social anxiety disorder “frequently travels in the company” of alcohol or drug abuse, as people with social anxiety disorder might try to make use of these substances to help them feel more comfortable and less inhibited in social settings.9

However, anxiety robs these people of the perspective of knowing when too much is too much, or even that they have an anxiety disorder that needs treatment and therapy, not drugs and alcohol to get over their fear of talking to people. And, in a vicious form of catch-22—the same drugs that bring momentary relief (whether prescription medications, illegal drugs, or simply caffeine) can also cause anxiety.10

How to Help Someone With Anxiety and Drug Addiction

Helping someone with the co-occurring disorders of anxiety and drug addiction can start by recognizing some of the warning signs and symptoms of the problem. If behavior or personality changes, if the person starts losing interest in hobbies, or if the person insists on consuming drugs and alcohol even as the adverse consequences start to mount, treatment may be beneficial.

In cases of significant substance dependence, the first part of recovery may be medical detox for drugs or alcohol. Some acute withdrawal syndromes are particularly unpleasant and, potentially risky, so this step should not be attempted at home. Instead, a treatment facility provides a safe, clean space, with doctors and medical staff on hand, to help as the body relearns how to function without drugs or alcohol.

Detox can cause distressing symptoms, many of which can be related to anxiety. To make sure that the patient is as safe and comfortable as possible during the process, a doctor might administer stabilizing medications (e.g., opioid agonists, benzodiazepines, when applicable) during the withdrawal management period.

These medications are typically intended only for short-term use (i.e., during detox).

Medications to Treat Anxiety and Addiction

Because underlying anxiety is likely to continue to be an issue, clinicians may need to prescribe other anxiety management medications—such as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRI) or selective norepinephrine re-uptake inhibitors (SNRI). These medications have little to no abuse liability but affect the brain’s chemistry in a way that helps manage anxiety in the longer-term.11 

Examples of SSRIs include:

  • Paroxetine (Paxil).
  • Escitalopram (Lexapro).

Examples of SNRIs include:

  • Duloxetine (Cymbalta).
  • Venlafaxine (Effexor).

Benzodiazepines, such as Xanax and Valium, are sometimes prescribed for anxiety, but these drugs have the potential for abuse and dependence, and many doctors choose not to prescribe them for this reason.11 In addition to medications, non-pharmacologic measures may also be instituted for better management of anxiety.

If you’re concerned that you or a loved one might be relying on drugs to cope with anxiety, please don’t hesitate to take the first step toward recovery and call us today at .

Therapy for Anxiety and Drug Addiction

Medical detox may last, on average, for several days to weeks, although the length of the process depends on some of the factors mentioned above, including the nature of the anxiety disorder at play and how extensive the drug addiction is. After successful detox and withdrawal management, patients may transition into a longer-term course of rehabilitation and therapy to help them understand, cope, and overcome the underlying issues behind their anxiety and drug abuse.

Licensed psychologists will use a methodology called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (or CBT) to help their clients identify and learn from the sources of their anxiety.12 It is only through therapy (like CBT, although there are other approaches) that clients can make tangible strides toward restoring a sense of balance and stable mental health to their lives.

CBT works as the psychologist and patient develop techniques to control (or even eliminate) behaviors that arise from anxiety. These techniques could be as innocuously basic as deep breathing and counting to 10 when the person feels the onset of a pounding heartbeat or shallow breathing.

The same way that CBT teaches people how their thoughts lead to anxiety (and how those thoughts can be anticipated and prepared for) can be applied to treating substance abuse. As people become more aware of their thoughts and feelings, it can lead to a greater acknowledgement of the danger of taking drugs and how better ways of acting on their thoughts and feelings can lead to more positive outcomes.

Finding the Right Treatment Center for Anxiety and Substance Abuse

The presence of two of more mental illnesses can make diagnosis and treatment even more complex. Finding the right rehab facility that meets your individual needs is essential to recovery.

Some factors to consider when choosing a treatment center include:

At our inpatient rehab facility in Grand Prairie, Texas, we specialize in the treatment of co-occurring disorders and provide a full range of care. We also offer to sober living in Arlington and various levels of outpatient rehab programs in Arlington, TX.

Paying for Rehab

At Greenhouse Treatment Center in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, we accept many major insurance plans and offer financing options and other ways to pay for rehab.

To learn more about using insurance to pay for addiction treatment, call us at  today. Our admissions navigators are available anytime day or night to answer your questions and start the admissions process.

Or you can find out whether we accept your insurance and verify your benefits by filling out this quick and confidential .

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