Anxiety Disorders and Addiction

anxious woman cannot sleep
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Written by Dani Merriam, LPC, CADC-II

Just calm down, it’s not a big deal, take a deep breath.

Have you ever had anyone say this to you when you were nervous or anxious?

For someone who doesn’t suffer from an anxiety disorder, these phrases may actually be helpful. They may offer just enough support or distraction so the person can focus and continue on with whatever it is they’re doing. However, for those who do struggle with panic disorder, social anxiety, phobias, or generalized anxiety, these phrases will likely offer little support, and could potentially exacerbate anxiety and cause frustration or feelings of alienation.

Anxiety disorders affect close to twenty percent of adults in the United States. That’s approximately 40 million adults between the ages of 18 and 54. It’s common for a person with anxiety to feel confused, different, and like they don’t belong or fit in.

Symptoms of Anxiety

During a panic attack, they may experience the following symptoms:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid hear rate
  • Shakiness
  • Sweaty palms
  • Impending sense of doom
  • General fear

These symptoms can be so intense that some people end up in the emergency room during a panic attack because they think they’re having a heat attack or some other type of physical issue.

In addition to experiencing the symptoms mentioned above, people with anxiety might:

  • Avoid places where they’ve had panic attacks
  • Stay home to avoid places where they’ve had panic attacks
  • Experience periods of excessive worry

In order to mitigate the uncomfortable feelings associated with anxiety – and to enable them to go to places where they might have a panic attack – people with anxiety may use alcohol or drugs. The euphoric, numbing, and distancing effect of intoxicants offers temporary relief from the symptoms of anxiety.

But the effect is only temporary.

Symptoms of Social Anxiety

Those who suffer from social anxiety have an irrational fear that they will be judged or scrutinized by others. This can lead to major disruptions in daily life, often rendering the person incapable of performing their job to the best of their ability – or even at all. People with social anxiety often have difficulty forming close relationships. This often leaves them feeling alone and powerless.

Like people with general anxiety, people with social anxiety often turn to alcohol and/or drugs to handle the symptoms of their anxiety disorder. But like those who experience general anxiety, the relief they achieve is only temporary.

Anxiety and Phobias

People who suffer from a phobia experience an irrational fear of something specific.

Common phobias include fears related to:

  • Animals: spiders, dogs, snakes
  • The environment: storms, the ocean, wide open spaces
  • Medical issues: blood, injections, illness
  • Situations: riding in a car, flying in a plane, concerts

Like people with generalized anxiety and social anxiety, people with phobias may use alcohol or drugs to avoid the negative feelings and emotions associated with their phobia(s). And like people with generalized anxiety or social anxiety, the relief they achieve is only temporary.

Addiction and Anxiety

Have you heard of the phrase liquid courage?

It’s the kind of courage someone gets from drinking alcohol. Often, people with anxiety use alcohol to enable them to socialize.

Or have you ever heard someone say, “I need a few before I can dance?”

Ditto: people with a fear of being embarrassed may use alcohol or drugs to make them comfortable enough to get out on the dance floor.

The problem is this: repeated use of an intoxicant to handle anxiety eventually backfires. The human body develops a tolerance to alcohol and drugs, which means higher and higher doses become necessary to achieve the same effect. This means people use more and more of their drug of choice to handle their anxiety. Over time, they can become physically dependent on alcohol and/or drugs – and that’s when addiction develops. In addition, while tolerance builds, alcohol and other drugs of misuse begin to damage the brain and every major organ in the body.

What starts as a way to avoid painful feelings – also known as self-medication – can and often does become a very painful cycle of use/abuse and addiction.

Treatment for Co-Occurring Anxiety and Addiction

Evidence-based treatment for co-occurring disorders – meaning when one person has addiction and a mental health disorder such as anxiety – can help people understand and process the symptoms associated with both disorders. Evidence-based treatment for co-occurring anxiety and addiction include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Dialectical behavior therapy
  • Acceptance and commitment therapy
  • Experiential therapy

If you know someone with anxiety who uses alcohol or drugs as a coping strategy to handle their symptoms – in other words, someone who self-medicates – it’s important that they know they can seek and receive effective treatment. If appropriate, you can tell them what you learned in this article. Be mindful, kind, and respectful, of course. Pick a good moment and talk to them about what you see. Let them know their best course of action is to talk to a mental health or addiction specialist, find out what they recommend, and get started on a course of treatment – the sooner, the better.