Anxiety Disorders and Addictive Behaviors

Anxiety is something everyone experiences occasionally. Anxiety, or fear, can be a healthy response to certain situations. If we look at emotions from an evolutionary lens, anxiety serves an important role in keeping us safe.

What Is the Purpose of Anxiety?

For example, back in the caveman days, if there was a tiger lurking nearby your cave, it would make sense to be afraid! The fear would help you to stay safe by motivating you to run away or hide.

Even though humans have come a long way since then, our brains still work in a similar way. While most people aren’t having to think about tigers being outside their home, our survival instincts still come into play.

Maybe this happens while driving or when walking home late at night. Anxiety in these situations can be helpful if it helps you to stay safe. However, anxiety becomes problematic when it lingers after the danger has passed, begins causing emotional distress, or causes impairment.

Anxiety can impair someone’s ability to function in relationships, work, or school [1]. Typically, untreated anxiety gets worse over time.


Girl considering therapy for anxiety and addictionMany people think anxiety is just worrying about something. While worrying is certainly a sign of anxiety, there are several anxiety disorders that mental health professionals look out for. Some of these are:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): GAD is a diagnosis given when someone struggles with constant anxiety about several different things. They may worry about work, social situations, or other common life circumstances. Signs of GAD include: feeling restless or on-edge, being easily fatigued, concentration issues, irritability, muscle tension, having a difficult time controlling feelings of worry, or having a difficult time falling or staying asleep [1].
  • Panic Disorder: Panic disorder is characterized by frequent panic attacks. Panic attacks are episodes of intense fear. Symptoms of panic attacks include increased heart rate, sweating, shaking, difficulty breathing, feeling of impending doom, or feeling out of control [1].
  • Phobias: Phobias are an intense fear of a certain object or situation [1]. Even though it makes sense to be afraid of certain things, people with a phobia feel fear that is out of proportion with the actual situation. Someone with a phobia will often try to avoid the object or situation they are afraid of and experience severe anxiety if exposed to it.

Anxiety disorders are common in people struggling with addiction [2]. In fact, using substances may be an attempt to cope with an anxiety disorder. For example, if someone struggles with anxiety in social settings, they may rely on substances to feel calmer during social events.

However, people can become addicted to behaviors, not just substances. Some examples of this include compulsive shopping, gambling, sex, or workaholism [2].

These types of addictions are often referred to as process addictions because they are addicted to a feeling that results from a behavior.

Someone struggling with compulsive shopping may find relief from their anxiety after making a purchase. Research has shown that the brains of people with process addictions are similar to people with substance dependence [2].

Any behavior or substance can become addictive if someone is dependent on it and continues to engage in these behaviors despite negative consequences. It is important for people struggling with anxiety to get help.

There are several treatment options available, including therapy, medication, and support groups [1]. Treatment can give you or a loved one who is dealing with anxiety relief from their symptoms and equip them with coping skills.

This can help someone find relief without relying on addictive behaviors. Ultimately, treatment can help someone reclaim their life. Who wouldn’t want that?


[1] National Institute on Mental Health. (2018, July). Anxiety disorders.

[2] Maté, G. (2008). In the realm of hungry ghosts. North Atlantic Books.

About the Author:

Samantha Bothwell PhotoSamantha Bothwell, LMFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, writer, explorer, and lipstick aficionado. She became a therapist after doing her own healing work so she could become whole after spending many years living with her mind and body disconnected. She has focused her clinical work to support the healing process of survivors of sexual violence and eating disorders. She is passionate about guiding people in their return to their truest Self so they can live their most authentic, peaceful life.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from multiple physical, emotional, environmental, and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on January 7, 2021
Reviewed by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on January 7, 2021
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About Baxter Ekern

Baxter Ekern is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He contributed and helped write a major portion of Addiction Hope and is responsible for the operations of the website.