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Treating Anxiety Disorders and Substance Abuse



Medically Reviewed by Dr. Mohammed Saeed, MD.

Most people experience anxiety from time to time, but people with anxiety disorders live with a persistent fear that constantly interferes with their daily lives. They panic, worry, and feel uneasy even when there isn’t a reason for them to feel this way. Sadly, many people with chronic anxiety turn to drugs or alcohol in a desperate attempt to find relief. Unfortunately, this often makes their anxiety worse, creating even more challenges for them. Luckily, professional treatment centers with a dual diagnosis program, like the one we offer here at Into Action Recovery, can help individuals successfully recover from anxiety and substance abuse challenges.

Understanding Anxiety Disorders

Clinical anxiety differs from everyday anxiety, which is the body’s natural response to stress. Normally, anxiety works like an on and off switch. When we feel threatened, attacked, or overstimulated, anxiety switches on and helps us prepare to either fight or flee the triggering event, person, or object. When the perceived danger or threat is gone, anxiety dissipates. Clinical anxiety, on the other hand, acts like a broken switch that never really turns off.

An anxiety disorder is a mental health challenge that is formally diagnosed by a psychiatrist or physician. 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 even when there’s nothing to fear. Often, they’re overwhelmed with physical and psychological symptoms of anxiety that never seem to end.

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.

These physical and psychological symptoms can include:

  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Trembling
  • Sweating
  • Irritability
  • Hypervigilance
  • Racing thoughts
  • Restlessness
  • Panic attacks
  • Irrational fears
  • Heart palpitations
  • Excessive worry
  • Feeling agitated
  • Having a sense of impending doom
  • Inability to concentrate

These symptoms affect every aspect of their lives, making day-to-day tasks like going to work, attending school, maintaining relationships, and participating in social activities difficult.

Different Types of Anxiety Disorders

There are many different types of anxiety disorders that manifest themselves differently in our lives but some of the most common include:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). People with this type of anxiety disorder feel a continuous sense of dread that has no specific focus. Instead, the worry individuals feel moves from one situation to another without any apparent connection. In fact, many people with GAD consider their anxiety “typical worries.” But in reality, their fears are more invasive and powerful than the concerns most people experience on a daily basis. Often, generalized anxiety disorder looks and feels like a panic attack. Symptoms commonly associated with GAD include constant worry, restlessness, and an inability to concentrate.
  • Social anxiety disorder (SAD). Unlike generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder is based on an unreasonable fear of interacting with others. Also known as social phobia, people with SAD often dread being in crowded places, participating in social activities, and public speaking. Others fear public places or situations that may make them feel helpless or out of control. Nearly 15 million American adults have some form of social anxiety. Common symptoms include worrying about being embarrassed or humiliated and being concerned about offending someone.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This anxiety disorder frequently develops after a traumatic event such as military combat, a natural disaster, a violent crime, or sexual assault. Typically, people with PTSD experience flashbacks, nightmares, irritability, anger, insomnia, paranoia, and hypervigilance.
  • Panic disorder. People with panic disorder have constant episodes of overwhelming, uncontrollable terror. These attacks aren’t fatal, but people experiencing them typically feel an overarching sense of doom or impending death. Even though these episodes aren’t based on any real danger, people with panic disorder often experience difficulty breathing, a rapid heartbeat, sweating, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and chest pain. On average, these episodes last about 10 minutes.
  • Specific phobias. This form of anxiety is based on an irrational, debilitating fear of an object, situation, or animal. Most people with a specific phobia go out of their way to avoid the object of their fear, which can easily interfere with daily life and activities. Some of the most common phobias include:
  • Claustrophobia, the fear of enclosed spaces
  • Aerophobia, the fear of flying
  • Acrophobia, the fear of heights
  • Thanatophobia, the fear of death
  • Nosophobia, the fear of developing a disease
  • Arachnophobia, the fear of spiders
  • Autophobia, the fear of being alone
  • Hemophobia, the fear of blood
  • Hydrophobia, the fear of water
  • Astraphobia, the fear of thunder and lightning
  • Atychiphobia, the fear of failure

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.

The Relationship Between Anxiety and Substance Abuse

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.

Constantly feeling worried, on edge, and stressed can be extremely exhausting. Many people experiencing this worry use substances like drugs or alcohol to find some temporary relief from their anguish. Unfortunately, people who rely on addictive substances typically experience more harm than help. 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.

In fact, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that 20 percent of Americans living with an anxiety or mood disorder also have a substance abuse disorder. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that individuals with anxiety are twice as likely to suffer from substance use disorders compared to individuals who don’t have an anxiety disorder. With such a clear connection between the two challenges, it’s important to understand why substance abuse is so often connected to our mental health.

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.

The connection between anxiety and substance abuse is undeniable, but luckily, professional recovery programs can help treat anxiety and substance use disorders.

Can I Receive Treatment for Both Anxiety and Addiction?

Treating substance abuse doesn’t heal anxiety and recovering from anxiety doesn’t eliminate substance abuse challenges. That’s why the most effective treatment programs for anxiety and substance abuse challenges treat both disorders simultaneously through dual diagnosis treatment.

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.

Here at Into Action Recovery, we help individuals living with co-occurring conditions through dual diagnosis treatment that addresses both an individual’s mental health and substance use challenges. We utilize treatment methods including individual and group therapy, as well as peer support and aftercare, to help individuals manage these co-occurring challenges.

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.

Dr. Mohammed Saeed, MD.

Dr. Saeed is a psychiatry specialist with over 40 years of experience in the medical field. He received training in General Psychiatry at the University of Texas Medical Branch, where he was selected as the Medical Director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. He currently serves as the medical director at Into Action Recovery Centers. Full Bio

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