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Anxiety is one of the most common mental health challenges facing Americans. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, more than 40 million American adults struggle with anxiety disorders each year, and individuals with anxiety are more likely to suffer from depression, as well.

Yet one aspect of anxiety that is sometimes overlooked is the condition’s connection to substance use. The Anxiety and Depression Association also notes that approximately 20 percent of people struggling with anxiety turn to addictive substances, while approximately 20 percent of people struggling with substance use also have an anxiety disorder.

With such a clear connection between the two challenges, it’s important to understand how anxiety disorders work and why substance abuse is so often connected to our mental health.

What is an Anxiety Disorder?

An anxiety disorder is a mental health challenge that is formally diagnosed by a psychiatrist or physician. While general feelings of anxiety, such as nervousness before a big speech or stress around a deadline are part of all our lives, anxiety disorders can make even everyday moments difficult to manage.

Unlike the anxiety that we feel when under stress, anxiety disorders persist throughout our lives, often making people feel on edge, unbalanced, depressed, and frightened. In some cases, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, our anxiety can lead us to experience physical symptoms, such as increased heart rate, flashbacks, and activation of our body’s “fight or flight” response. In other cases, such as panic disorder, our bodies can experience panic attacks, where we may feel temporarily debilitated or unable to move.

There are many different types of anxiety disorders that manifest themselves differently in our lives. These include:

  • Social Anxiety Disorder: Individuals with social anxiety disorder struggle with social gatherings and feelings of rejection or inadequacy from their peers. This disorder can make social gatherings difficult or even cause physical symptoms such as anxiety attacks or upset stomach.
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder: As its name suggests, generalized anxiety disorder can cause intense concern, stress, and worry about many different aspects of life, including both professional and personal responsibilities. In other cases, individuals may have extreme anxiety about their health or the wellbeing of loved ones.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Commonly associated with veterans returning from wartime experiences, post-traumatic stress disorder can affect anyone who has experienced a traumatic event. This disorder can also cause flashbacks or strong emotional triggers associated with particular places, people, or feelings.
  • Panic Disorder: Individuals struggling with panic disorder are more likely to experience panic attacks, even in situations when they are not particularly stressed or uncomfortable. These rapid onset attacks can also lead to anxiety and the fear of having another attack can almost be as debilitating as the attacks themselves.

There are other varieties of anxiety disorders as well, all of which can be properly diagnosed by a physician or psychiatrist. If you are concerned that you or a loved one are suffering from an anxiety disorder, keep track of common symptoms and experiences. Your doctor will want to know more details about your anxiety, including how often it occurs and in what situations. This can help them diagnose you appropriately.

How are Anxiety and Substance Use Related?

woman taking drugs for anxietyMany Americans, even those who do not struggle with anxiety, use addictive substances to help “take the edge off” uncomfortable social situations or emotions. For individuals with anxiety disorders, however, substance use can quickly escalate and become a major source of concern. And, since anxiety is often connected to depression, individuals can sometimes make their mental health challenges worse through their substance use.

Individuals with anxiety disorders may use addictive substances for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Trying to make themselves more comfortable in a social situation
  • Avoiding or escaping traumatic memories
  • Stopping the physical manifestation of anxiety (i.e. shaking or sweating)
  • Helping themselves go to sleep
  • Recovering from a panic attack

Unfortunately, all too often, addictive substances actually worsen anxiety disorders. For example, addictive substances can actually make panic attacks more likely. Individuals with post-traumatic stress may believe they are using addictive substances to cope when, in fact, they may be making issues like emotional triggers even worse.

Can I Receive Treatment for Both Anxiety and Addiction?

Yes! Most addiction treatment programs provide support for dual diagnosis challenges, meaning individuals who are coping with both substance use and mental health difficulties. These programs understand that treating both addiction and mental health challenges at the same time is critical, as both challenges are interrelated. Treating one challenge in isolation from the other will only worsen the challenge that is not treated.

If you or a loved one are struggling with anxiety and substance use, we invite you to speak with our team about ways we can help. We can be reached 24 hours per day, 7 days per week at 844-694-3576.

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