America’s Anxiety Fuels Drug Use

In the past thirty years, America has become a nation of anxious people. High-paced lifestyles, economic pressure and a general fearfulness are fueling what many experts call our age of anxiety.

Dr. Nancy Synderman, chief medical editor of NBC News, recently reported that the number of adults suffering from acute anxiety has increased by more than 1200 percent since 1980. More than 100 million men and women report high levels of anxiety with symptoms that include tension, sleeplessness and obsessive thought patterns.

A certain amount of stress can be a healthy motivator and many people are able to cope with it in healthy ways. When stress is constant and disrupts everyday life, it can cross the threshold into an anxiety disorder or depression. People with anxiety orders exist in a constant state of “red alert,” experiencing nervousness and tension that aren’t associated with any specific event.

Compared to the general population, people with anxiety disorders including PTSD, social anxiety and panic attacks are more than twice as likely to become addicted to drugs or alcohol. Many people with an anxiety disorder attempt to self-medicate with alcohol or illicit or prescription drugs, despite the fact that substance abuse can actually worsen the symptoms of anxiety disorders. According to the Anxiety and Depression Society of America (AADA), about 20 percent of Americans who are suffering from an anxiety disorder or depression also have an alcohol or substance abuse disorder.

Besides the desire to self-medicate, a variety of other factors can lead to the co-occurrence of anxiety and substance abuse disorders. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, contributing factors for co-occurrence include overlapping genetic vulnerabilities and environmental triggers such as the stress of combat and the trauma of sexual abuse. Experimentation with alcohol and drugs during adolescence is another risk factor since early substance abuse can cause dramatic developmental changes in the brain that increase the risk for mental disorders.

Whether an individual develops an anxiety disorder and a substance abuse disorder independently or at the same time, the co-occurrence of these disorders can create a debilitating cycle with the symptoms of one disorder increasing the symptoms of the other. Experiencing these two disorders at the same time creates an interaction between the two conditions that can worsen the course of both.

Treatment for co-occurring substance abuse disorders and mental disorders like anxiety and depression must take a comprehensive approach that addresses both problems. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been shown to be an effective treatment for many people suffering from anxiety and substance abuse disorders. Getting combined from the same treatment team or provider is critical for successful recovery.