Stress and Substance Abuse

Substance Abuse Provides Temporary Relief from Stress
It is well established that the [effects of stress](http://helpguide.org/mental/stress_signs.htm) can damage people’s mental and physical well-being. It is not so much that stress is bad, but that people have an inability to deal with it effectively. One of the ways that the individual may attempt to manage their stress is by using alcohol or drugs. This type of self-medication can provide temporary relief, but is ultimately self-defeating. It can mean that the individual will have more stress in their life than ever, but they will have even less of an ability to handle it. There are different techniques that people can use so that they are better able to handle stress.

Stress Defined
_Stress_ is one of those words that people will understand yet struggle to define. Most individuals will be able to give plenty of examples of what it does, but describing what it actually is proves more challenging. Stress is completely subjective. People can’t even agree upon what things are stressful and what are not. A lot of individuals will feel stressed if they are asked to make a public speech, but for others it won’t seem like such a big deal.

One way of defining stress would be to say that it is [the body’s way of dealing with a demand](http://www.mtstcil.org/skills/stress-definition-1.html). It involves the release of different chemicals in the body so that it is prepared to take action. The [fight or flight response](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fight-or-flight_response) is produced by the body when there is a sense of danger.

Stress has developed a bad reputation, but it is essential for survival. If people didn’t react to external events they would be in danger. Stress can also be highly beneficial when it comes to preparation for exams or other important events. It encourages people to put in a lot of effort and it keeps them focused.

Stressors – Triggers of Stress Response
Anything that triggers the stress response is referred to as a stressor. The [most common stressors](http://www.phoenix.edu/alumni/phoenix-focus/2009/10/top-10-common-stressors-in-everyday-life.html) include:

* Death of a loved one
* Conflicts at work or home
* Illness
* Overwork
* Poor time management
* Legal problems
* Major life changes such as changing house or job
* Relationship breakdown
* Unhealthy habits such as substance abuse

The Dangers of Chronic Stress
If people spend a lot of time feeling stressed it can begin to cause damage both physically and mentally. This is because the chemicals associated with the stress response are only meant to be in the bloodstream for short periods. Those who are chronically stressed will have such chemicals working overtime. The dangers of chronic stress include:

* Chronic stress [causes the immune system to become less effective](http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=stress-dangers). This is because stress forces the immune system to release chemicals so that they end up being overused. Instead of helping people fight off infections, these chemicals begin to damage the individual’s own organs. This can increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
* Chronic stress leads to fatigue and depression. Those who are dealing with a lot of stress in their lives will have poor mental health.
* It can increase the risk of developing ulcers and digestive problems.
* Many people who are dealing with chronic stress will turn to substance abuse.

Substance Abuse as Self-Medication for Stress
Self-medication is a situation where people turn to alcohol or drugs in an attempt to manage their problems. [Depressants](http://alcoholrehab.com/alcohol-rehab/central-nervous-system-depressants/) like alcohol produce a calming effect on the body, and so the individual will feel like they have escaped their difficulties. They may start to take these substances more and more as a way to manage their stress levels. This is dangerous because the cure can be far more damaging then the initial symptoms.

The Dangers of Using Alcohol and Drugs to Deal with Stress
Using alcohol or drugs to deal with stress is at best a short-term solution. It is dangerous because:

* It can lead to [addiction](http://alcoholrehab.com/alcohol-rehab/what-is-addiction-a-perspective/). If this happens then the individual may find it difficult to stop. Addicts can end up losing everything including their possessions, health, friends, family, and self-respect.
* Substance abuse only masks the problem and doesn’t solve it. It will be almost impossible for the individual to learn better ways of managing stress while they are still abusing alcohol or drugs.
* Substance abuse increases the amount of stress in people’s lives. It makes it difficult to be effective at work, and it damages people’s ability to form meaningful relationships. The longer a person abuses these substances the more things they will have in their lives to feel stressed about. They can then get into a vicious circle of abusing drugs more and more to escape the stress that is being caused by their substance abuse.

Symptoms of Stress
Sometimes people can be stressed and not even realize it. The most [common symptoms](http://changingminds.org/explanations/stress/stress_symptoms.htm) include:

* Inability to sleep
* Loss of appetite or comfort eating
* Headaches
* Feeling antsy
* Indigestion
* Stomach discomfort or ‘butterflies in the stomach’
* Easily upset
* Inability to concentrate – sometimes described as ‘fuzzy thinking’
* Anxiety
* Lack of energy
* A lot of negative thinking
* Muscle tension
* Evidence of an ineffective immune system – e.g. frequent colds
* Loss of interest in sex
* Feelings of frustration

Effective Ways to Deal with Stress
It is impossible that people will be able to eliminate stress from their lives completely. It is therefore important that they develop strategies for managing it. Substance abuse is never a good way to deal with stress. The most effective solutions include:

* Learning a meditation technique such as [mindfulness](http://alcoholrehab.com/alcohol-rehab/mindfulness-recovery/). This teaches people to observe what is happening in their mind without taking it so personally. Just the simple technique of naming and observing stress can be enough to reduce it.
* Relaxation techniques provide the body with the opportunity to let go of stress. This could include simple breathing techniques or visualizations.
* Exercise is another good way to relieve stress. This is because it [increases the release of body chemicals that make people feel good](http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/exercise-and-stress/SR00036). Just going for a long walk every day can be enough to keep stress levels under control.
* Listening to music or spending time engaged in a hobby can also dramatically reduce stress levels.
* Getting away for a few days can help people recharge and escape the usual stressors. A break away from normal living also provides the opportunity to reassess life.
* Keeping a journal provides the opportunity to vent about stressors. These annoyances tend to be more damaging when they are internalized. Just writing about them on paper can diminish the strength of these stressors.
* Talking about problems to other people is another good way to reduce stress levels
* If people continue to struggle with chronic stress it is advisable that they seek advice from a [therapist](http://alcoholrehab.com/alcohol-rehab/types-of-therapists/).

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