Stress and Addiction

Stress is a natural human response, and we all experience some amount of stress. However, while everyday stress is usually manageable, chronic and severe stress can be a life-ruining condition, affecting health, relationships and happiness. Unfortunately, many people endure stress without ever seeking professional help, unaware of the profound difference that effective stress management and treatment can make. In the UK, various treatment options are available, so it is important for anyone struggling to understand stress symptoms and causes and how to get help.

What is stress?

Stress, in its most fundamental sense, is the body’s response to a demand or challenge. This response involves a complex series of processes known as stress signalling, which triggers the “fight or flight” mechanism. This mechanism involves various physiological changes — such as increased heart rate and blood pressure — preparing us to face the challenge head-on (‘fight’) or evade it (‘flight’). Stress signalling has been pivotal for human survival, enabling quick and efficient responses to threats. However, when the response is triggered too frequently or fails to subside after the threat has passed, it can lead to chronic stress, affecting our physical and mental health adversely.

People experience stress for various reasons, and what may be stressful for one person may not affect another similarly. Stress is often categorised into two types:

1. Acute stress

This is the natural short-term response that arises in response to immediate threats,

2. Chronic stress

This is a potentially debilitating condition that persists over a longer period and can result from ongoing pressures that can be real or perceived.

Common stress symptoms

Identifying stress symptoms is crucial in recognising when stress has escalated beyond a manageable level and requires professional intervention. These stress symptoms can vary widely among individuals, encompassing physical, emotional, cognitive and behavioural issues.

Physical stress symptoms

Stress can manifest through various physical symptoms, such as:

  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension or pain
  • Fatigue
  • Changes in libido
  • Digestive issues
  • Sleep disturbances

These physical signs can be both the body’s immediate reaction to stress and chronic symptoms and signalling that the body and mind are under too much pressure.

Emotional stress symptoms

Emotionally, individuals experiencing stress might find themselves dealing with:

  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Lack of motivation or focus
  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Depression

These emotional responses can significantly affect a person’s quality of life, relationships and overall sense of well-being.

Cognitive stress symptoms

Stress can also impair the ability to think clearly, concentrate and make decisions. This can result in:

  • Memory problems
  • Constant worrying
  • Negative thinking
  • Difficulty focusing on tasks

These symptoms can hinder performance at work and school and greatly impact daily functioning.

Behavioural stress symptoms

Behaviourally, stress often leads to changes in:

  • Eating habits, such as overeating or undereating
  • Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
  • Increased use of alcohol, cigarettes or drugs
  • Nervous behaviours like nail-biting

Recognising these symptoms as potential indicators of stress is the first step towards addressing the issue. Once identified, individuals can explore stress management strategies and seek professional help if needed. It is important to remember that stress symptoms can also overlap with signs of other health conditions, so consulting with a healthcare provider is advisable to ensure a correct diagnosis and appropriate treatment plan.

What causes stress?

Stress can be triggered by various factors, varying greatly from one individual to another. Understanding these causes is pivotal for effective stress management, as it enables individuals to identify and address the root of their stress. The various causes of stress can be broadly categorised into external and internal factors:

External factors

External factors involve changes or situations which disrupt a person’s sense of stability and security, leading to a stress response. These include:

  • Major life changes include moving to a new home, changing jobs, or going through a divorce.
  • Work-related stress is another common external factor, which can stem from job insecurity, high demands, bullying or harassment and poor working conditions.
  • Financial difficulties, including debt or managing household expenses, also rank high among the stress-inducing challenges faced by many.
  • Social relationships can also be a source of stress, whether it’s due to ongoing conflicts, loneliness or pressures from social media.
  • Environmental factors, such as living in an area that feels unsafe or dealing with a global crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, can further exacerbate stress levels.

Internal factors

Internal factors contributing to stress are connected to a person’s mindset and perception towards life’s challenges. These include:

  • Pessimism, negative self-talk, unrealistic expectations, perfectionism and lack of flexibility can all heighten stress levels.
  • A lack of coping strategies or poor stress management skills can also make individuals more susceptible to stress.
  • Physical health conditions, such as chronic illness or injury and mental health disorders, like anxiety or depression. These can increase stress by impacting an individual’s everyday life and ability to cope with additional challenges.

Stress and co-occurring conditions

The relationship between stress and co-occurring conditions is a complex interplay that underscores the multifaceted nature of stress. Understanding this dynamic is critical for anyone dealing with stress, as it can significantly influence the approach to treatment and stress management:

Addiction and stress

Addiction and stress often exist in a cyclical relationship, where stress can lead to increased substance use as a form of coping, which, in turn, exacerbates stress, creating a vicious cycle. This cycle can be particularly challenging to overcome, as the temporary relief provided by substances can mask the underlying issues contributing to stress, delaying the pursuit of healthier coping mechanisms.

Mental health disorders and stress

Beyond addiction, stress is also known to co-occur with a range of mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression. These conditions can both contribute to and be exacerbated by stress, creating a complex scenario that requires a nuanced approach to treatment. For instance, someone experiencing high levels of stress may develop symptoms of anxiety or depression, while those already dealing with these mental health conditions may find that their symptoms worsen during periods of high stress.

Physical health conditions and stress

Physical health is not immune to the effects of stress, either. Chronic stress has been linked to a variety of physical health issues, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity and autoimmune disorders. The physiological stress response, involving the release of stress hormones like cortisol, can also have long-term detrimental effects on the body, affecting everything from immune function to metabolic processes.

The interconnection between stress and co-occurring conditions highlights the importance of a comprehensive approach to treatment that addresses not only the symptoms of stress but also its underlying causes and any associated health conditions.

How is stress treated?

Treating stress effectively requires a multifaceted approach tailored to the individual’s specific symptoms, causes and any co-occurring conditions that they are suffering from. This comprehensive strategy ensures that the treatment addresses the root of the stress and its manifestations, leading to more sustainable outcomes. Some of the primary methods employed in stress treatment include:

Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT)

CBT is a widely used treatment for stress that helps individuals identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviours contributing to their stress. This allows them to develop more effective ways of thinking and responding to stressors in their lives, reducing the stress that they cause.


While there is no specific medication to “cure” stress, medications may be prescribed to manage symptoms of stress, such as anxiety or depression. However, that medication should usually only be considered as part of a broader treatment plan that includes therapy and lifestyle changes.

Stress management techniques

Various techniques can help manage stress on a day-to-day basis. These include:

  • Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing exercises and meditation
  • Exercise and physical activity to reduce stress hormones and trigger the release of endorphins
  • Time management strategies to help balance work, free time and social activities

Lifestyle changes

Making specific lifestyle changes can also have a positive impact on stress levels. This includes adopting a healthy diet, ensuring sufficient sleep, reducing caffeine and sugar intake and avoiding alcohol, drugs and tobacco.

Support groups and therapy

Participating in support groups or individual therapy can provide a safe space to express feelings and share experiences with others in a similar situation. This can help reduce feelings of isolation and provide additional coping strategies.

Mindfulness and relaxation techniques

Practices such as yoga, tai chi, sound bath therapy and mindfulness meditation can help individuals develop a deeper awareness of the present moment, reducing the tendency to ruminate on past or future stressors.

It’s important for anyone experiencing stress to consult with a healthcare professional to develop a treatment plan that’s right for them. By addressing stress from multiple angles, individuals can find relief from their symptoms and develop resilience against future stressors.

Get help for stress today

If you are overwhelmed by stress, it is important to know that help is available and accessible. Taking the first step can be the hardest, but reaching out for support is a sign of real strength. Contact your GP or a private mental health treatment centre for specialised support if you are unsure where to begin.

Your journey towards managing stress and achieving a more fulfilling life begins with a single act of courage. Reach out, seek support and embrace the path to wellness.

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What is the relationship between stress and addiction?
The relationship between addiction and stress is intricately linked through a dangerous cycle where individuals turn to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism for stress, and conversely, substance abuse amplifies stress levels. This cycle exacerbates both conditions, making breaking difficult without professional help. Stressful experiences can also trigger cravings and relapse in individuals in addiction recovery. Understanding this relationship is crucial for effective treatment and recovery strategies that address both stress management and addiction.