An article in the Vancouver Sun this week examines the close relationship between high levels of stress and addiction problems. It suggested that those people who experience high levels of stress during their early years would be far more likely to develop problems with alcohol and drugs. These claims are based on the work of Gabor Mate who claimed that people’s brains are shaped by the world in which they live. Newborn babies are particularly susceptible to their environment, so the experiences they have during these early months may determine the rest of their life.
The idea that stress and addiction are closely related is certainly not a new idea. In the past, there has been a good deal of research into addictive personality and it has been found that most people who develop alcohol and drug problems perceive that they have a great deal of stress in their life. They feel unable to cope with their stressful lives, so they turn to alcohol or drugs as a type of self-medication. In the beginning, using these substances can create the illusion of reduced stress, but over time the substance abuse is actually making the problem much worse. By the time the individual becomes addicted, they will feel the need to use increasing amounts of alcohol or drugs in order to deal with the increasing levels of stress in their life. It is a vicious cycle.
It does seem reasonable to assume that stress plays a significant role in the development of addiction – although it would be misleading to suggest that this was the only cause. There is also good evidence that some people are genetically predisposed to this type of behaviour, and growing up in an environment where substance abuse is considered normal will also play a role. It has also been found that those people who decide to experiment with alcohol or drugs at a young age are far more likely to develop a problem later on.
The fact that stress may play such a huge role in the development of addiction only goes to emphasise the need to manage it once people become sober. One of the most common reasons why people will relapse in recovery is that they feel unable to cope with their lives. This is because giving up alcohol or drugs will just get them back to where they were before falling into the substance abuse. If they do not have new tools to help them deal with stress, there is going to be a great deal of temptation for them to revert to old behaviours. In order to have a real chance of breaking away from addiction, it is vital that people not only give up the substance abuse, but they also develop effective strategies for dealing with stress. One of the benefits of going to rehab is that it gives individuals the opportunity to begin developing these strategies.
Here are a few ideas for how people can better deal with stress in recovery.
- Learn some simple relaxation techniques and practice these for a few minutes every day – this could include things like meditation, yoga, or Tai Chi.
- Keep a daily journal where you write down your worries and concerns – alternatively you could do this with a blog. Writing things down like this can be very therapeutic.
- Speak to other people when you feel stressed – the worst thing you can do is try to bottle things up.
- Exercise can be great for helping people deal with stress – even a long walk can make a huge difference.