When we face challenging situations, our bodies and minds react with stress, causing physical and emotional tension. While some stress can be beneficial in motivating us to take action, prolonged stress can harm our mental and physical health. One negative impact of stress is the increased likelihood of drug and alcohol use.

Studies show that people who experience high levels of stress are more prone to substance abuse. This is because drugs and alcohol can provide a temporary relief from stress and anxiety. They allow a short-term escape from daily pressures. However, substance use can lead to increased stress levels in the long run, creating a cycle of dependence.

Recognizing the link between stress and substance use is essential for both individuals and society. By understanding how stress can contribute to drug and alcohol use, we can take steps to prevent and address these issues. In this article, we will explore the ways in which stress can increase substance use and discuss prevention and treatment strategies.

The effects of stress on the brain and body

When we experience stress, our body responds with the “fight or flight” reaction. This is a physiological response that helps us deal with perceived threats. We release hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which increase heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration.

Various factors can trigger the stress response, including environmental stressors like noise and temperature. Additionally, it may be psychological stressors like work or relationship problems. Stress can have significant effects on neurotransmitters and hormones in the brain. 

This leads to decreased levels of serotonin, which affects mood regulation, potentially contributing to anxiety and depression. This may explain why some individuals turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with stress.

Stress can contribute to anxiety and depression in multiple ways, including changes in brain chemistry, as described above. Furthermore, stress can affect the prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision-making and problem-solving. This can make it difficult for individuals to find solutions to the sources of their stress. In turn, it may result in feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.

Understanding how stress affects the brain and body is crucial in recognizing the potential links between stress and substance abuse. Recognizing how stress can contribute to anxiety and depression can help individuals seek out effective stress management techniques and treatment options.

A person with their head in their hands dealing with the impact of stress

The effects of substance use on the brain and body

Similar to stress, drugs and alcohol can have significant impacts on the brain. For instance, alcohol can increase levels of the neurotransmitter GABA, leading to relaxation and sedation. Drugs like cocaine and amphetamines can increase dopamine levels, causing feelings of euphoria and pleasure.

However, prolonged drug and alcohol use can lead to changes in brain chemistry, leading to dependence and addiction. For instance, alcohol and benzodiazepines like Xanax or Valium can cause anxiety when their effects wear off. This can result in increased use to relieve these feelings. Moreover, long-term substance use can cause changes in brain chemistry that contribute to the development of anxiety and depression.

Prolonged drug and alcohol use can lead to dependence, which is characterized by withdrawal symptoms when these substances are not present. And, of course, addiction, which is compulsive use despite negative consequences. Addiction is a chronic condition that requires ongoing treatment and support.

Understanding how drugs and alcohol affect the brain and body is crucial in recognizing the potential risks associated with substance abuse. Being aware of the risks of substance use is important. It can lead to anxiety, depression, and addiction. 

This knowledge allows individuals to make informed decisions about their use. Furthermore, it helps them seek effective treatment. In the following section, we will explore the link between stress and drug and alcohol use.

How stress can trigger substance use

Stress can act as a trigger for the use of drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism. Individuals may turn to these substances to alleviate feelings of stress and anxiety. This could be using alcohol to unwind after a long workday or prescription drugs to cope with depression. Stressful life events, such as job loss or relationship breakdown, can also trigger substance use.

While drugs and alcohol may initially provide feelings of relaxation and pleasure, the negative consequences that follow can be severe. Impaired judgment, decreased inhibitions, and an increased risk of accidents or injuries are common examples. Additionally, continued substance use can lead to tolerance and dependence. This makes it more difficult to achieve the same level of pleasure and relaxation.

Substance use can also cause changes in brain chemistry and function, leading to the development of anxiety and depression. Furthermore, substance abuse can result in financial problems, legal issues, and relationship difficulties, leading to further stress and anxiety. Understanding the relationship between stress and substance use is crucial in identifying and addressing these issues.

A person standing in the sunlight with their arms raised having freed themselves from stress related drug and alcohol use.

Prevention and treatment

Breaking the cycle of stress and substance use demands implementing effective stress management techniques. These may include exercise, relaxation methods like yoga or meditation, and therapy. Building a strong social support system and using healthy coping mechanisms can help reduce stress and prevent substance use. This is a productive approach.

There are several treatment options available to help those struggling with substance use. Therapy, such as motivational interviewing, can be effective in addressing the underlying causes of substance use. It can also be instrumental in developing strategies to avoid relapse. Medication-assisted treatment can also be helpful in managing withdrawal symptoms and lowering the risk of relapse.

Dealing with both stress and substance use is crucial for achieving long-term recovery. By developing effective stress management techniques, individuals can reduce the risk of relapse and enhance their overall well-being. Addressing the root causes of substance use, such as trauma or mental health disorders, can also aid individuals in developing strategies for avoiding substance use and sustaining recovery.


The relationship between stress and substance abuse is complex, and both issues must be addressed to achieve lasting recovery. Understanding how stress affects the brain and body can help individuals recognize the potential impacts of stress on substance abuse and seek out effective stress management techniques and treatment options.

At Retreat at Sky Ridge, we’re dedicated to helping individuals overcome substance use and co-occurring mental health disorders. Our comprehensive, evidence-based approach to treatment includes therapy, medication-assisted treatment, and holistic therapies. We also provide ongoing support and aftercare services to help individuals maintain their recovery.

If you or a loved one is struggling with substance use and stress, we encourage you to contact us today. Our compassionate team of experts is here to help you take the first step towards a healthier, happier life.

For more information on addiction treatment services, please give us a call at (877) 693-6010 or complete or short inquiry form at the bottom of this page.

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