Anxiety and the Risks of Substance Abuse

Have you ever had to stand up in front of an audience and give a speech?  Do you remember being called on to deliver an oral report when you were in grade school? Did you have nervous knots or “butterflies” in your stomach? This type of reaction is normal anxiety, but there is a group of conditions that take these feelings to the extreme. Some individuals feel so nervous that they can’t function normally in society, while others feel anxiety during activities that shouldn’t instill fear. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 40 million people are affected by these more extreme forms of anxiety, known as anxiety disorders.

Generalized anxiety disorder is diagnosed when a person feels anxious or worries excessively about normal aspects of life for a period of six months or longer. They can hold down a job, and they brave their days. There are, however, physical changes that are associated with this form of anxiety disorder that can affect them in a negative manner, including:

  • Inability to concentrate
  • Inability to relax
  • Headaches and muscle aches
  • Trembling or twitching
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea and lightheadedness

Some individuals have more severe or specific forms of anxiety disorders. For instance, when a person suffers from panic attacks during periods of intense anxiety, they may suffer from panic disorder. In cases of panic disorder, mild anxiety becomes terror. The symptoms of a panic attack can mimic those of a heart attack. They may sweat, experience pain or a pounding heart, become weak or faint, and their hands and arms may begin to tingle. There are times when the panic attack occurs without the presence of immediate stress or perceived danger, including during sleep.

Individuals who suffer from anxiety disorders very often have another serious issue in their lives. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than half of individuals who abuse drugs and alcohol have a co-occurring disorder. Many of those individuals suffer from these intense forms of anxiety. The reasons why this happens are not completely understood, but research has shown that individuals who suffer from more than one condition must address both issues during treatment.

Prescription Drug Abuse and Anxiety Disorder

prescription drugsThere are several types of drugs that are used to treat anxiety. Some of the drugs used, known as benzodiazepines, have a risk of abuse potential. Many people believe that because the drug is prescribed by a doctor, it must be completely safe. When these medications are used in accordance with their instructions, this is usually true. When an individual does not follow the instructions provided by the manufacturer of the drug or their doctor, the behavior transforms into drug abuse.

For instance, there may be a maximum dosage that can be taken at any given time, or there may be a specific number of hours that should have passed prior to taking another dose. In some cases a prescription may indicate that a person should take the drugs “as needed.” Without strict discipline or an understanding of the effects of the drug, an individual can abuse his or her prescription without even meaning to.

One of the first stages of drug addiction is the development of tolerance to a certain drug. Tolerance occurs as the body gets used to having certain substances present. For instance, a person may be able to manage generalized anxiety if they take one pill from their prescription. Over time, their body may have adjusted to that dosage and the anxiety is not reduced. In this case, they should contact their doctor to have their dosage adjusted or to switch to a different, more effective medication. If an individual takes more Xanax than they are supposed to, they increase the risk of tolerance. Ultimately, they will continue to increase their dosages – a practice that is abuse of the drug – increasing their risk of drug addiction.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual published by the psychiatric community to create a consistent guideline for the diagnosis of mental illness, substance abuse includes behaviors such as:

  • An inability to meet major life obligations such as school, work or parenting
  • Use of drugs at inappropriate times that can cause physical harm (such as driving under the influence of Xanax or Valium)
  • Legal problems as a result of drug use
  • Social or familial problems as a result of the abuse of drugs or existing conditions that are made worse by the drug use

It is important to note that an individual does not have to experience all these criteria to establish that a problem exists. Many individuals who are abusing their anti-anxiety prescriptions do not drive while they are under the influence because they recognize the dangers. Others do not experience legal troubles, such as forging prescriptions to obtain more drugs. The psychiatric community has established that one of these symptoms needs to be present within a single 12-month timeframe in order for there to be legitimate concern of a problem.

Use of Recreational Drugs With Anxiety Disorders

recreational drugsIn some cases, an individual may not realize they suffer from an anxiety disorder. They may not have mentioned their symptoms to their doctor because they are unaware that such conditions exist, or they may be embarrassed by their lack of ability to control how they feel. In these cases, the National Institute on Drug Abuse has found a link between mental illness and the use of drugs as medication. Someone suffering from anxiety may find they prefer drugs that have the same calming effect as the legitimately prescribed drugs without realizing why. They know, simply, that they feel better when they abuse the drugs. This can be even more dangerous because they did not undergo the diagnostic process to eliminate other possible causes or diagnoses, nor do they have the controls in place concerning safe dosages. They may start using higher doses, increasing their usage in larger increments and intensify their chances for developing addiction.

Treatment for Both Issues

There are two main types of treatment for mental illnesses that include substance abuse. The first is conducted on an outpatient basis while the other is conducted at a residential treatment center. Both types of treatment have certain benefits and drawbacks. The type of treatment applied will depend upon a myriad of factors that differ from one person to the next. For instance, one individual may not wish to participate in an inpatient treatment program due to family obligations, such as caring for elderly parents or small children. Another may suffer so intently that it is necessary to find alternate care for the family members.

When participating in an outpatient substance abuse program, the recovering addict will live in their own home – although some choose to live in alternative housing if there is a serious influence toward relapse in the home. They will attend regular therapy sessions in an individual and group setting and have access to the same evidence-based treatment options as someone who is being treated on an inpatient basis. A residential inpatient treatment facility, on the other hand, requires that the recovering addict live on site, with access to around-the-clock care and fewer influences toward relapse.

Both types of treatment can be effective, provided they are of an adequate length to address all the individual’s needs and both the anxiety disorder and substance abuse are given appropriate attention. If you or someone you love suffers from anxiety and you are concerned that substance abuse may be a problem, please contact us here at The Oaks at La Paloma to help determine what steps you should take to begin recovery.