Anxiety and addiction
Anxiety is an emotion which can make us feel uneasy. We often feel it before an important event such as a job interview, an important and anticipated to be difficult meeting, or through knowing we are likely to be in a dangerous or unfamiliar situation. If experienced at normal levels, anxiety is a healthy emotion as it helps us prepare for unknown situations and we are alert and aware.

However, if our anxiety is continuous and irrational, giving rise to feelings of panic and uneasiness for no good reason, affecting our concentration and our ability to live our lives normally, then there is a problem. Symptoms of chronic anxiety can include sleep problems, heart palpitations, chest pain, choking sensations, shortness of breath, muscle tension, trembling, stomach pains, nausea and sweating – to name just some of the symptoms.

Generalised anxiety affects about 6% of the population and tends to affect more women than men (about twice as many). People with general anxiety often go on to develop substance abuse problems, partly due to their everyday chronic anxiety. These people find it hard to relax or focus and often feel frustrated with life.

Anxiety and substance abuse are very much interrelated. People who have anxiety might initially find temporary relief by having a drink or two or taking some form of mood altering substance (prescribed or a street drug). However, if we use mood altering substances to relieve anxiety, this can damage our ability to learn coping mechanisms to deal with the anxiety. Our brain starts to think we need alcohol or drugs to achieve a calm state. We build up a tolerance and then begin to need more and more to achieve the same effect. Eventually drugs and alcohol do not help our anxiety at all.

In fact, as time goes on, the alcohol and the drugs enhance our anxiety. If we begin to withdraw from the numbing effects, our anxiety and stress increases. We can get so tense that our brain and body can go into a fit – similar to an epileptic fit.

Both anxiety disorders and substance use disorders are linked to chemical imbalances in the brain. It is important that a diagnosis can be made which separates the anxiety disorder from the substance misuse disorder. Often once someone who has both is separated from the alcohol or drugs safely (usually through some form of detox), then they can be given a programme to help them deal with their anxiety and live a life free from chronic anxiety. A 12 step programme often provides critical input here.

There will be some people who have genuine anxiety disorders that cannot be dealt with by removing the substance abuse issues and by being on a recovery programme. Those people can be helped with suitable medication and an experienced qualified medical professional should be able to offer the appropriate treatment.

Many people who come to treatment at The Haynes Clinic also present with anxiety issues. People with addiction problems often have anxiety. People with anxiety problems often go on to develop addiction problems. The team at the clinic will be able to untangle this conundrum, deal with the addiction issues and give a programme to help deal with the underlying anxiety. If this is not sufficient, a pyschatric diagnosis can determine the most appropriate medication to take.

Author: Dr Magda Czerwinska