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Anxiety Disorders and Addiction

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Medically reviewed: 06/06/2018
Last updated: 05/15/2019
Author: Addictions.com Medical Review

Reading Time: 7 minutes

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorders in the U.S. and affect an estimated 40 million adults or 18.1% of the U.S. adult population. People who suffer from anxiety disorders are often two to three times more likely to also suffer from alcohol and drug use disorders compared to the general population. A person diagnosed with both anxiety and addiction is known to have a dual diagnosis, which can be safely and effectively treated in full at an addiction treatment center.

Table of Contents

Anxiety is a general feeling of worry, unease, and nervousness about situations you may perceive as dangerous, stressful, or threatening to your well-being. Anxiety is experienced by everyone throughout the course of their life and is a common, normal response to certain types of everyday stressors and situations. But anxiety can become a serious, debilitating condition when it starts interfering with your ability to enjoy life and perform normal activities.

Anxiety disorders are a group of related conditions where feelings of fear and worry are excessive and persist for at least six months or longer. People with anxiety disorders tend to exaggerate and overestimate the level of danger they may face in situations perceived as fearful and may avoid these types of situations at all costs to avoid symptoms.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety?

Anxiety disorders are extremely complex and can be caused by one or more of a combination of different factors. Anxiety disorders may be genetic and run in families, and be linked to faulty brain circuitry that controls panic, fear, and other anxiety symptoms. For instance, people born with fewer serotonin receptors in their brains may be at higher risk for anxiety, since serotonin is an important brain chemical that regulates mood, sleep, and social behavior.

Anxiety disorders can also be caused by trauma and childhood abuse, and by stressful environments, events, and situations. The death of a loved one can lead to the development of an anxiety disorder, as can a serious, prolonged illness or exposure to violence. An estimated eight million U.S. adults have PTSD during any given year — many of whom are veterans who were exposed to horrifying, life-threatening experiences during combat.

Anxiety disorders can interfere with your quality of life and prevent you from enjoying and taking part in normal daily activities. You may start avoiding certain places and people and avoid taking risks of any kind that would otherwise help you achieve your most important life goals. When left untreated, anxiety disorders can affect your physical and mental health and lead to a number of complications.

Here are common complications and risks associated with anxiety disorders:

  • Excessive worry. People who are diagnosed with GAD will experience persistent anxiety on most days of the week for at least six months. If you find yourself constantly worrying about everyday things both big and small, it’s possible you may have an anxiety disorder.
  • Irrational fears. Fears that are out of proportion to the actual risk are a common sign of phobias, which are classified as anxiety disorders.
  • Sleep problems. Anxiety can cause you to experience poor quality sleep and sleep disturbances such as insomnia, tossing and turning, and the inability to stay asleep.
  • Muscle tension. People who suffer anxiety tend to involuntarily clench their jaws or tense their muscles as a natural response to symptoms. The presence of muscle soreness and aches may indicate an anxiety disorder.
  • Trauma. If you’ve experienced or witnessed a trauma at any point in your life, you may be at a higher risk for an anxiety disorder.
  • Digestive problems. Your gut health is directly linked to your brain and can be affected by mental health disorders like anxiety and depression.
  • Panic attacks. An occasional panic attack doesn’t necessarily mean you have an anxiety disorder, but repeated episodes of panic attacks may indicate you need help.
  • A family history of anxiety. If anxiety runs in your family, you may be at a higher risk for an anxiety disorder due to genetics.
  • An impending sense of doom. Having the feeling of knowing that something tragic or dangerous is about to occur is common with many anxiety disorders.
  • Drug and alcohol use. Using substances to self-medicate for anxiety may indicate you have an anxiety disorder.

Knowing common signs of an anxiety disorder can give you insight into whether you or a loved one needs treatment. Getting treatment for anxiety may help you overcome your disorder, or help you learn how to manage your disorder and prevent symptoms from becoming worse. Anxiety treatment may also reduce your risk for more serious life-threatening complications like suicide and addiction.

Types of Anxiety Disorders

There are many different types of anxiety disorders — each of which has its unique symptoms. But all anxiety disorders share one major symptom: an excessive, persistent worry or fear in situations that aren’t genuinely threatening.

  • Generalized anxiety disorder. Feelings of chronic and exaggerated worry about everyday activities and events.
  • Social anxiety disorder. Fear of social situations due to worries and feelings surrounding self-consciousness, embarrassment, and judgment by others.
  • Panic disorder. Repeated episodes of panic attacks and sudden feelings of fear.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder. Recurring, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive behaviors (compulsions).
  • Agoraphobia. Fear of places and situations that could trigger feelings of panic, embarrassment, and helplessness.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder. Nightmares or unwanted memories of trauma, and avoidance of places and situations that trigger memories of the trauma.
  • Separation anxiety disorder. Excessive fear or worry about separating from people to whom you’re attached such as by kidnapping, accident, or death.
  • Selective mutism. Failing to speak when expected to in social situations, such as during presentations at work or school.
  • Specific phobia. Irrational fear or worry about certain things or situations, such as animals or seeing blood.
  • Substance / medication-induced anxiety disorder. The onset of anxiety as a result of drug and alcohol use, since anxiety, is a side effect of some medications and many drugs of abuse. Anxiety is also a common drug and alcohol withdrawal symptom and the side effect of long-term substance abuse.

Many anxiety disorders are caused by stress and can last a lifetime when left untreated. Though each anxiety disorder has its own unique symptoms, all anxiety disorders share the common trait of persistent, excessive worry and fear in situations that aren’t truly threatening in context. Some of the most common anxiety disorders in the U.S. include generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder, and panic disorder. Coincidentally, these three anxiety disorders are linked to an especially high risk for drug use disorders, along with PTSD.

How Does Anxiety Interact with Addiction?

In 2016 roughly 8.2 million U.S. adults suffered from co-occurring mental illness and drug use disorders. During the same year, 2.6 million adults suffered from a co-occurring serious mental illness and drug use disorder. Serious mental illnesses are defined as those that impair you by interfering with your ability to perform major life activities. Many anxiety disorders classify as SMIs including OCD, panic disorder, and PTSD.

People who don’t seek treatment for anxiety may try self-medicating this condition on their own using drugs and alcohol. For instance, those who suffer insomnia may drink alcohol every night believing it helps them sleep better. Those who experience extreme irritability and restlessness may use a friend’s painkillers to help them relax and wind down.

A recent study found that anxiety disorders generally precede the development of alcohol use disorders in 80% of cases. Though some substances may help relieve anxiety short-term, self-medicating can quickly lead to drug dependence, withdrawal, and addiction, along with increasing anxiety symptoms. Drugs and alcohol fail to address the root cause of your anxiety and only mask your symptoms for a short time to offer temporary relief.

How are Anxiety and Addiction Treated?

Anxiety disorders remain highly prevalent around the world, yet many people who suffer from anxiety don’t receive treatment. Global studies conducted on the treatment gap in mental health reveals that 57.5% of people who suffer from GAD remain untreated. The treatment gap for OCD is 57.3%, while the treatment gap for panic disorder is nearly 56%. Alcohol use disorder has the widest treatment gap of all anxiety and mental health disorders at 78.1%.

People who suffer from anxiety and addiction usually receive treatment for one disorder and not the other. This can happen because both disorders share some of the same symptoms, which can make it difficult for some doctors to make a proper diagnosis. Other reasons for this treatment gap include lack of physician training or the existence of more serious health conditions that take precedence over either anxiety or addiction.

Anxiety and addiction can be safely treated at an addiction treatment center using psychotherapy, medications, and complementary health approaches. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help you overcome negative thoughts and behaviors surrounding anxiety and addiction, and teach you how to manage triggers that commonly lead to anxiety or relapse. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications may be used to reduce anxiety and depression associated with your anxiety disorder and drug or alcohol withdrawal. Other therapies that treat a dual diagnosis include meditation, biofeedback therapy, stress management, support groups, and family therapy.