Everybody gets anxious, but certain kinds of anxiety can be particularly overwhelming. For some the amount of worry they experience can be a motivation to use and abuse drugs or alcohol. The relationship between addiction and anxiety is significant. When people seek to medicate their fear with substance abuse, they inevitably make their anxiety worse.
Fear can become a debilitating emotion if we don’t know how to respond to it. The mountain of “what ifs” and potential problems can become consuming. A person who is struggling with anxiety can seek for any kind of retreat or relief from their fears, and drugs and alcohol provide an opportunity for such escape. Timmy, a young man I counseled years ago, turned to pills because they helped alleviate his social anxiety. A few pills could turn him from shy and awkward to the life of the party. He loved it. But what Timmy didn’t realize was that the longer he abused medications the worse his anxiety would get.
The brain has the amazing ability to self-regulate. It makes adjustments and learns from its environment. So, when we introduce foreign drugs into our bodies the brain goes into action, seeking to regulate and stabilize the body. Homeostasis is the process of normalization in the body, which affects the body’s ability to maintain and naturally produce calmness. Dr. Joseph Troncale writes:
Self-medication begins with a few drinks and a few benzodiazepines and a cigarette. What is happening in the brain is the building of receptors that have to be filled with alcohol or drugs to achieve a calm state. So tolerance develops and one needs more and more alcohol or benzodiazepines or nicotine to calm the individual. As more and more receptors build in the brain, more drugs, alcohol and nicotine is needed to bring the person to a state of calm. (“Anxiety and Addiction”)
Substance abuse changes a person’s sense of normal, of calm. Eventually as a person struggles to maintain the same high levels of drugs or alcohol, or as they seek to come off these substance, their anxiety will worsen.
Not all withdrawal is the same. There are a number of important factors that contribute to a person’s experience of withdrawal: type of drug/alcohol consumed, length of consumption, method of consumption, and personal medical history. In many cases, however, anxiety can be a common experience. Racing heart-rate, nervous energy, restlessness, insomnia, general feelings of dread are all natural responses to withdrawal from certain kinds of drugs or alcohol. Sometimes these symptoms can last up to weeks, or even months, after use has stopped. These oppressive negative feelings can be a real source of temptation for addicts to return to substance abuse.
For others, substance abuse may not cause their anxiety, but the problems that result from abuse can create such chaos and havoc in our lives that anxiety results. In such cases the anxiety is natural and is intended to drive us to action. When substance abuse causes us to be late on payments and in our more sober moments we realize that our house is going to be foreclosed on, then anxiety is the call to action. It is an invitation to do something to address the problem. In such cases it may not be drug or alcohol induced anxiety, but there is still a correlation between addiction and emotion.
Helping individuals learn to respond to anxiety is a massively important step in their recovery process. This begins by pointing out the correlation. It’s important for addicts to see how they may be making their anxiety worse through substance abuse. “Stimulants are to anxiety what depressants are to depressions,” says counselor Brad Hambrick. We need to help people see this relationship.
This also means helping addicts to see the right role of worry. Worry and concern are emotional igniters; they are given to us by God to help us take action, to respond to situations of crisis or concern in constructive ways. In Genesis 2:15 we read that God instructed Adam to “take care” of the Garden. The Hebrew word for this phrase can also be translated as “keep vigil” or “watch.” Adam was to be concerned enough about the Garden that he kept an eye on it, tended it appropriately. This is the kind of constructive concern that we are to have. For the addict this means taking action against their addiction. The experience of anxiety can be a call to action, a battle cry even. Encourage them to evaluate their emotions according to Scripture and see their fear as a motivator.
Information alone, however, will not be enough to help them fight the temptation to use or drink. They need real help and hope for confronting their fears. This can come as they use fear to drive them again and again to the God of peace (Rom. 15:33; 16:20; 1 Cor. 14:33; 2 Cor. 13:11). God even invites us to use anxiety as a tool for spiritual growth and increased dependence upon the Lord. So Peter, writing to the church in Asia Minor, facing serious persecution – a certain fear-inducing-context –says:
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:6-7)
Peter sees anxiety as a means to turning to God in dependence, submission, and love. Helping addicts learn to cry out to God for comfort and peace instead of turning to the bottle or the needle is vital to helping them overcome addiction.
There are, of course, many things involved in helping someone overcome both anxiety and addiction, more than can be delineated here. Yet, at the foundational level helping them to see how their substance abuse only makes anxiety worse, and how anxiety can actually be a tool for spiritual gain are foundational. We start here, in order to help them go further. Anxiety can be related to addiction, as a source of temptation to use or a result of use. But anxiety itself can also be a tool against addiction and for spiritual growth.