The Connection Between Stress and Substance Abuse

Article Contributed By The Staff Of American Addiction Centers

Americans are continuing to report extreme stress, and more adults report that their stress is increasing than decreasing. [1] Stress, unfortunately, is something everyone must deal with. However, it is very important to learn to recognize when stress levels are too high, as it can be a driving factor in substance use and precursor to relapse.

A slew of health conditions can also arise if stress if left unchecked for too long, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Mood instability
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Digestive issues
  • Chest pain or elevated heart rate
  • Lowered immune system

The Role of Stress In Substance Abuse

A stressor is anything that stimulates a stress response—a feeling, memory, specific place or situation in which we find ourselves. A particular time of year or certain sounds and smells. Common stressors include the death of a loved one, financial problems, relationship issues, losing a job or other major life changes.

Oftentimes, individuals turn to drugs or alcohol in order to cope with stressors.

For example, one of the first studies to explore the effects of traumatic events on substance abuse patterns found NYC residents, in the wake of the 9/11, experienced high levels of depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among respondents, and an extreme increase in alcohol and marijuana abuse [4].

The connection between stress and substance use is not only prevalent in adults, but can also be found in regards to teen drug use [3]. High stress teens are twice as likely as low stress teens to smoke, drink, get drunk and use illegal drugs. In 2008, 73 percent of teens reported the number one reason for using drugs was to cope with school pressure, yet only 7 percent of parents believed teens might use drugs to deal with stress. [2] Peer and societal pressures, family issues and bullying are other sources of stress for adolescents.

Substance use is an extremely common yet unhealthy way to deal with stress and trauma. While using drugs or alcohol can temper issues temporarily, emotions are only quelled on the surface while the long-term consequences can mean addiction, and even death.

Get to Know Your Own Responses!

Everyone experiences stress, but it’s the way in which stress is responded to that carries the most weight.

We must be aware of our own responses to challenges, difficulties and triggers, and focus on healthy coping mechanisms. Keeping a journal/lists of potential stressors and triggers makes it easier to recognize and monitor responses; meditation relaxes both the mind and body; healthy eating and regular physical activity is key; strengthening one’s spirituality often helps to restore perspective; taking a vacation, or even just a few days away can recharge the system; and seeking support from family and friends, is invaluable.

Practicing Mindfulness Can Relieve Stress

Mindfulness is about focusing on the present moment while also being more willing to recognize and accept the difficult emotions that can arise after experiencing stress or trauma. By taking note of your thoughts and feelings and allowing them to “just be,” you’re more able to let them go, without acting on them with isolation or dangerous behavior

Important factors in mindfulness include:

  • Breathing techniques
  • Recognizing and accepting one’s thought process
  • Staying “in the moment”
  • Accepting one’s feelings and emotions


[1] APA –

[2] –

[3] The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University –

[4] –


Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on September 25, 2013
Published on, Treatment Directory for Drug Abuse

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.

One thought on “The Connection Between Stress and Substance Abuse

  1. Juliet

    Hi Baxter, great article on how stress and substance abuse are related. Keeping a journal/list of triggers is a good idea, as most of the time we don’t connect it to the reason we start stressing out.

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