The Link Between Mood Disorders and Addiction

About 20% of Americans with an anxiety or other mood disorder (like depression) also have an alcohol or other substance use disorder.

Do you get anxious when you have to speak in front of an audience, take a test, or talk with a superior? Or maybe when you are facing debt, in an argument with someone you care about or at the precipice of a potentially life-altering decision? Every human being faces experiences that cause anxiety, but some feel it more than others. Research indicates that there is a genetic predisposition to anxiety; some of our nervous systems are more prone to anxiety than others. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 40 million people in the United States have suffered from some kind of anxiety disorder, including panic attacks and phobias. When you face anxiety, how will you handle it?

(Note: While this blog post focuses primarily on the link between anxiety and addiction, I have witnessed, with my clients, that this information can be generalized to other mood disorders as well.)

Individuals who come from unstable families and lack secure attachment often experience generalized anxiety; they may turn to drugs to calm themselves down. Many teens begin to abuse alcohol in their adolescence; it is their way of managing social anxiety.  A friend of mine abused prescription medications after her brother’s suicide; it was her way of muting her overwhelming feelings of loss. Many addicts relapse; it is their way to escape reality. Several of my clients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experience major anxiety; they have a difficult time regulating their nervous system responses and often turn to addictive substances for comfort.  Some people, however, face anxiety head on with exercise, self-care, hobbies, a balanced diet, etc. While everyone experiences some form of anxiety or a mood disorder (like depression) during their lives, only some individuals combat their anxiety with addictive substances.

The question begging to be asked is–does a mood disorder like  anxiety or depression cause addiction? No. So is there a link between anxiety and addiction? That answer is a resounding yes. Can it lead to it? Absolutely.

Anxiety consists of the excessive need for control; ignoring psychological and physical signs of stress; the unending need for approval; perfectionism; and strong reactions within the body and mind. The physical and psychological symptoms of anxiety are similar to withdrawal symptoms from drugs and alcohol. An addict will turn to substances, or other addictive behaviors to calm an anxious state. The avoidance of uncomfortable physical agitation and painful emotions are some of the key components that maintain the connection between addiction and anxiety. Both anxiety and addiction strengthen as the addictive behavior continues. Substance abuse can mask anxious feelings preventing the addict from receiving proper treatment for anxiety.

People who experience anxious moments, but who do not have anxiety disorders, will be able to go about their day when the crisis passes; people with anxiety disorders cannot stop the effects of their anxiety disrupting their everyday life. Professional, social, familial, and academic obligations will be interrupted and damaged by the sense of panic, stress, and foreboding that comes as a part of the condition. Social anxiety disorder frequently “travels in the company” of alcohol or drug abuse, as people with social anxiety disorder might try to make use of alcohol or cocaine to help make them feel more comfortable and less inhibited in social settings.

For individuals struggling with anxiety, substances offer an escape. For others, substances bring a feeling of relative normalcy (self-medication). For some, anxiety is a factor of their personality that also includes aspects like impulsivity that make the anxious person more likely to use substances.  Although not entirely understood, there is a connection between anxiety disorders and substance abuse. About 20% of those with an alcohol or substance use disorder also have an anxiety or mood disorder. In fact, many of my clients with an addiction (mostly sex addiction) are self-medicating their anxiety and depression with their addiction! It is also important to note that addiction can happen without any substances; you can be addicted to an eating disorder, gaming, sex, exercise, etc. The point is that mood disorders can either reinforce or be reinforced by addictive substances.

Treating substance abuse without treating the anxiety that causes it is a fruitless endeavor. 

Treating substance abuse without treating the co-occurring disorder can lead to higher rates of relapse. Due to the similarity of drug and alcohol withdrawal symptoms and anxiety symptoms, both need to be treated at the same time. The treatment for anxiety and addiction is referred to as dual diagnosis and it is important to find an addiction treatment facility, or a therapist, that can address both the addiction and the anxiety.

It is only through therapy that clients can make tangible strides towards restoring a sense of balance and stable mental health to their lives. Simply walking away from treatment after detox is ineffective…and might even prove more harmful. Now is the time to address the symptoms of anxiety and addiction that feed off of each other and keep you in the self-defeating cycle. Allow me to help you break the dependence on the substance or behavior, you have used to manage your anxiety and distress, as well as provide sustainable ways to cope with your mood disorder. Happiness is possible. Healing is possible. Contact me today to get started.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.


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