Stress stinks! Do you remember the deodorant commercials that solved the problem of stress-induced sweating with a swipe of their product under each arm? If only the solution to stress were that simple! According to a study conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA), the average stress levels for residents of the United States rose from 4.9 to 5.1 from 2014 to 2015. The most noteworthy increase came in the form of adults reporting “extreme stress.”
The APA has conducted an annual stress survey since 2007. Not only have their yearly reviews shown a consistent increase in stress, but also two consistent culprits in the cause category: money and work. As we leave one of the most stressful election years in our nation’s history, it’s a fairly sure bet that the next annual stress review conducted by the APA will show yet another increase.
Why has the APA been so adamant about documenting the volume of stress Americans face? Because it’s seen as a major health problem. Stress impacts physical and mental health, and the impact isn’t often positive. Stress can lead to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. It can preface anxiety and depression disorders. Stress can and does lead to substance abuse.
The Link between Stress and Substance Abuse
Stress comes in many levels. Some are fairly minor, like the stress of running late due to things outside of our control. Others are extreme, like being an abuse victim or facing life altering changes, the majority of which fall outside of your power to stop. Prolonged exposure to stress can affect how the mind and body react. In the battle to roll with the punches, different people find different ways to cope. And this leads to the insidious link between stress and substance abuse in three major areas:
- Prescription Drug Use: Remember the old marketing buzz line, “There’s an app for that”? Prescription drugs seem to be taking over that line. Plagued with stress? There’s an RX for that! There’s nothing wrong with seeking a little help in reducing stress by consulting your doctor, but one the most commonly prescribed medications for stress issues is Prozac. Despite being considered a non-addictive drug, it can still trigger substance abuse or addiction. More than 2.1 million people start down the path of addiction while on prescription drugs.
- Alcohol Consumption: Need a quick calm? A shot of liquor or a glass of wine should do the trick, or so most people think. Thousands of people use alcohol as a way to calm their nerves, and while it does have a relaxing effect, long-term use can rapidly turn into alcoholism.
- Illicit Drug Use: When prescriptions stop being written or the cost of them goes out of reach, people who used prescription solutions for stress often turn to illicit drugs. Street drugs are easier to get and often less expensive.
4 Major Myths vs. Facts
What’s your go-to activity when stress ramps up? If your answer is something along the lines of a drink or smoke, here’s a reality check to digest:
Myth #1: Drugs can relieve stress.
Fact: Drugs, whether prescription or illicit, impact the brain’s production of dopamine. Dopamine is the body’s “feel good” mechanism. It’s part of the reward circuit, and activating it causes a sense of relaxation, happiness, and even calm. Drugs don’t relieve stress; drugs mask stress under a release of dopamine, or a high.
Myth #2: Drug addiction requires misuse.
Fact: You do not have to abuse or misuse a drug, prescription or otherwise, to develop an addiction. The same goes for alcohol. If you’re using a drug or alcohol as a means of coping with stress, you are at risk of developing a substance addiction.
Myth #3: Stress causes addiction.
Fact: While stress can cause someone to turn to an addictive substance for relief, it does not cause addiction on its own. Substance addiction requires the use of an addictive substance. No one is immune to the possible side effects. Stress is not solely to blame for the risk or development of addiction, but it can be a big part of the cause which means learning how to cope without the use of drugs or alcohol is crucial.
Myth #4: Drugs and alcohol reduce stress.
Fact: Some believe that using is the lesser of two evils, primarily because of a strong belief in myth #1, but the truth is, keeping up a substance habit can be more stressful than the original stress. You don’t even have to be addicted. For example:
Buying alcohol to consume for relaxation purposes costs money. If finances are where your stress stem from, spending money on an alcohol habit could increase your overall stress. Now, imagine developing an alcohol addiction or abuse problem. The compulsion to drink overtakes your ability to reason, and before you know it, you’re spending more and more money on drinking. What happens? Your financially based stress multiples, nevermind complicating matters with a DUI.
Using a prescription medication to aid in stress management isn’t wrong, but you must consider the consequences and determine if it’s worth it. What would happen if your insurance no longer covered the prescription? What if you lose your coverage? You’re right back at square one of trying to find ways to cope with the stress minus the prescription. And that’s not counting the complication of developing a tolerance or addiction to a particular drug.
If you’re using a street drug to manage stress, you could be exponentially complicating your already stress riddled situation. What if you get caught buying during a drug bust? What if money becomes so tight that you have to sell or steal to buy? And what if you OD because of an abuse problem or a tainted dose that you had no protection against?
No matter how stressful your current situation may be, is finding temporary fake relief really worth risking your life? Because if you’re not risking your actual life, you’re risking your quality of life. Don’t let drugs take away the things that mean the most to you. No stress management strategy is worth that.