Stress and Addiction

Individuals in recovery often struggle with a variety of stressors, including triggers and cravings. If mismanaged, stress can lead to relapse. But people who learn healthy ways to combat stress increase their chances of prospering in recovery.
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The road to recovery presents a number of challenges. After addiction treatment, people still encounter stress, triggers and cravings. To succeed in long-term sobriety, it is important to properly manage stress and avoid the people, places and situations that may lead to relapse.

Prolonged periods of stress can have significant health consequences. Chronic stress can cause mental health problems such as anxiety or depression. When people in recovery are overwhelmed by stress, they might be tempted to turn to drugs or alcohol for relief.

According to a report funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, stress can contribute to substance use, but it can also motivate people to seek addiction treatment. Numerous other studies suggest that stress can trigger relapse after a period of abstinence.

Healthy Ways to Handle Stress

Stress affects many aspects of a person’s health.

Chronic stress can cause problems in numerous systems in the body, including:

  • The central nervous system
  • The endocrine system
  • The respiratory system
  • The cardiovascular system
  • The muscular system
  • The immune system
  • The digestive system
  • The reproductive system

Finding healthy ways to manage stress is important in preventing relapse. Individuals in recovery can employ a number of strategies to reduce stress.

Stay Positive and Take Mental Breaks

Replacing negative thoughts with positive ones can improve mental health. It is important to put stress in perspective and maintain a positive attitude during difficult times. If you’re someone who obsesses over perfection, finding ways to overcome this problematic mindset can help alleviate stress.

It is also important to rest the mind. Without periodic rest, the brain and body may not recover from stress. Taking time to avoid situations that induce stress at work or home can be mentally and emotionally beneficial to people in recovery.

Exercise Regularly

Exercising daily can reduce stress, improve mood and enhance physical and mental health. A 2012 study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry stated that exercise may help prevent relapse in people seeking treatment for drug abuse.

Research has shown that exercise can decrease fatigue, increase concentration and improve overall cognitive function. Physical activity can help people sleep, improve self-esteem and produce endorphins that reduce pain.

Eat Healthy Meals

Eating healthy meals and maintaining a proper diet is an important aspect of recovery. Eating well-balanced, nutrient-heavy meals and energy-boosting snacks can help improve mood. Additionally, caffeine and alcohol can worsen anxiety and contribute to panic attacks.

Kurry Friedell, a dietitian at Advanced Recovery Systems, told that eating properly, getting good sleep and being active can help individuals during recovery. She said proper nourishment is necessary to succeed in recovery.

Jot Down Your Thoughts

Writing about your thoughts, feelings and experiences can help you deal with stress. People in recovery can keep a journal to express their emotions related to tribulations, interactions and events. For example, they can write daily about lessons learned from a counseling session or how they went about avoiding triggers.

A study by the University of Texas found that students who wrote about their stressful or traumatic experiences for four days in a row experienced reduced stress for months afterward. Researchers found that these students visited the campus health center less frequently and used fewer painkillers than students who wrote about more frivolous topics.

Turn to Religion or Spirituality

Many people seek religion to find guidance during tough times. Research has shown that practicing religion and spirituality may increase the likelihood of staying sober during recovery. In fact, people in recovery often say that religion or spirituality played a critical role in helping them maintain recovery.

Spirituality could include mindfulness techniques such as meditation and yoga. Yoga uses breathing modulations that help reduce stress and anxiety. The activity can also assuage drug cravings and alleviate problems associated with mental illness.

Seek Assistance

Completing rehab does not guarantee sobriety, so it is important to seek assistance after treatment. Counseling and aftercare services can help individuals recognize and avoid triggers that can lead to drug or alcohol use.

Social support also promotes mental health. Numerous studies have shown that support from loved ones can reduce stress during difficult times. Family and friends can provide emotional support, encouragement and a sense of belonging to people in recovery.

How the Body Responds to Stress

The body responds to stress by initiating a variety of biological and behavioral reactions. These responses, driven by changes in brain chemicals and a hormone system called the HPA axis, may include increased heart rate or blood pressure, avoidance behaviors or emotional reactions such as feelings of anxiety.

In stressful situations, chemical substances in the brain called opioid peptides cause pain relief, and the release of dopamine increases heart rate and blood pressure. Hormones released from the adrenal glands above the kidneys cause a physiological response, which can include sweating and a change in cardiovascular function.

Stress and the way the body reacts to it play a role in a person’s vulnerability to the initial use of alcohol and other drugs. Our stress response can also affect the decision to seek treatment and the likelihood of relapsing during recovery.

Effective treatment for addiction provides social support and teaches coping and problem-solving skills to help people reduce and manage their stress during recovery.

Medical Disclaimer: aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

Matt Gonzales
Content Writer,
Matt Gonzales is a writer and researcher for He graduated with a degree in journalism from East Carolina University and began his professional writing career in 2011. Matt covers the latest drug trends and shares inspirational stories of people who have overcome addiction. Certified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in health literacy, Matt leverages his experience in addiction research to provide hope to those struggling with substance use disorders.

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