A Closer Look at Anxiety and Substance Abuse

During this Mental Health Awareness Month, we take a closer look at the relationship between anxiety and substance abuse. While it is unclear which one comes first, there is evidence that individuals will use substances as a way to cope with their mental health issues. To learn more, continue reading. 

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Anxiety and substance abuse share a stronger link than you might think. However, to understand their connection, you need a better understanding of what anxiety disorders are and how they affect people.

What are anxiety disorders and how are they connected to substance abuse?

In honor of mental health awareness month, we are dedicated to informing the public about various mental illnesses and how they affect people. Here is how anxiety affects individuals and how it can cause or influence substance abuse disorders.

What are Anxiety Disorders?

Everyone will have moments of stress and anxiety. However, for those without anxiety disorders, these moments are fleeting and logical. For those who suffer from anxiety disorders, the triggers for anxiety attacks can seem random and constant.

Anxiety is a feeling meant to warn you of impending danger. This can be physical, mental, or emotional danger; for example, you may feel anxious about an upcoming test. You worry that you didn’t study well enough to get a good grade, which is the root of the anxious feeling.

If you have an anxiety disorder, the reasoning behind anxious emotions is skewed and often nonsensical. You may also experience anxiety at higher levels than are reasonable for the situation. Rather than only being worried about not getting a good grade on one test, you might spiral into negative thoughts; if you don’t get a good grade, you won’t get into a good college, your parents will be disappointed in you, and so on.

Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders

There are many symptoms behind anxiety disorders, both mental and physical. Some of these symptoms include, but are not limited to:

  • Unexplainable feelings of dread or fear
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Insomnia
  • Increased heart rate or palpitations
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness

These symptoms can be a drain on your daily life. While the above symptoms may be the result of something aside from an anxiety disorder, you should still consider what triggered the potential panic attack. This may help you determine whether or not you suffer from anxiety.

Types Of Anxiety Disorder

Various risk factors may aid in the development of a substance use disorder or addiction in someone who uses substances.

Common risk factors for substance abuse include health factors, environmental factors, and historical factors:

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

GAD, or generalized anxiety disorder, is the most common form of anxiety. This disorder involves consistent, chronic feelings of anxiety. Someone suffering from GAD may constantly feel a sense of dread, as though they may be attacked or confronted at any moment.

Social Anxiety Disorder

SAD, or social anxiety disorder, is a form of disorder related to being in social situations. An individual with SAD may be self-conscious around others, and concerned about how they may appear to those around them. This can make going out in public feel impossible.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, is a form of anxiety that occurs after an individual experiences a sudden traumatic event. These sorts of events could range from going to war to being in an environmental disaster to being in a car accident. The brain can be triggered by situations that remind you of that traumatic event, forcing you to relive it.

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder is a similar anxiety disorder. However, rather than being caused by one specific or brief incident, CPTSD occurs when an individual is exposed to trauma or stress over an extended period of time. This may be caused by living in an unstable household growing up or being trapped in an abusive relationship.

Panic Disorder

Panic disorders involve the random onset of panic attacks, resulting in shortness of breath, chest pains, and other anxiety symptoms. These panic attacks may be triggered by a specific circumstance, though they usually occur at random intervals without any sort of trigger.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

OCD is a form of anxiety disorder that involves the compulsive and uncontrollable need to perform certain actions or rituals to stave off anxiety. Those with OCD tend to repeat certain actions frequently, such as hand washing or counting.


It is possible to have multiple forms of anxiety at once. Anxiety disorders often go hand in hand with other mental illnesses as well, such as depression and ADHD.

How Can Anxiety Lead to Substance Abuse?

Anxiety and substance abuse have a very strong link. In order to reduce feelings of anxiety, some may attempt to self-medicate with various substances. Depending on the substance used for self-medication, the individual may develop an addiction.

Drugs and alcohol can provide short-term relief from some anxiety symptoms. However, these results are only temporary. The longer you take the substance, the lesser its effects will be and the more you will need to take in order to feel relief.

This creates a vicious cycle between addiction and anxiety symptoms. The type and severity of the anxiety disorder an individual has may vary their reaction to various substances.

Alcohol and Anxiety

Alcohol is a common substance of choice for those with anxiety disorders, particularly those with SAD. Alcohol can relieve a person of their inhibitions, removing negative thoughts related to other people for SAD patients. However, people with other forms of anxiety may also use alcohol as a coping mechanism.

While you may believe that alcohol can act as anxiety relief, drinking alcohol can actually trigger feelings of anxiety. You can also build a tolerance to alcohol’s effects, requiring you to drink more of it in order to help you relax. Cutting out alcohol can also lead to symptoms of alcohol withdrawal; one major symptom includes anxiety.

There is nothing wrong with having an occasional drink, but if you find yourself drinking as a way to get rid of your anxiety, it may be time to seek help. Alcohol should never be the only relief you have from your anxiety.

Marijuana and Anxiety

Marijuana can be used as a temporary relief from GAD symptoms. Again, the moment the effects of the medication wear off, symptoms of anxiety will likely start up again. This required the individual to consistently use marijuana in order to feel normal again.

While marijuana is not an addictive substance, relying on it as your only form of anxiety relief can be harmful. When not taking marijuana, your negative thoughts may increase in severity, causing your anxiety to become worse. It’s better to talk with your doctor about the benefits and drawbacks of marijuana for anxiety instead of self-medicating with it.

Stimulants and Anxiety

Stimulants are already known to have anxiety as a side effect. Those with a mental illness that require stimulants, such as those with ADHD, are likely to experience heightened severity in their anxiety disorder as a result of the medication. These changes may cause the individual to become more dependent on other substances to relieve their anxiety symptoms.

If you are required to take stimulants with anxiety, make sure you talk to your doctor about your options. They may be able to recommend medication or techniques to help improve your anxiety symptoms.

Prescription Medications and Anxiety

Certain prescription medications, particularly pain killers, can give temporary relief to physical anxiety symptoms, such as cramps, chest pain, and stomach pain. However, these medications tend to be highly addictive. Once you start using them to treat your anxiety, it is nearly impossible to stop.

What Comes First: Anxiety or Substance Abuse?

More often than not, symptoms of anxiety will trigger an individual to take substances. They are often used as a coping mechanism or form of self-medication. Those who are experiencing extreme hardships that result in increased anxiety symptoms are more likely to use substances as a means of escape.

Anxiety can also worsen as a dependency on substances builds. The more you use certain substances, the worse your symptoms will be as they drain from your system. Over time, this will result in worse feelings of anxiety.

However, some substances can trigger anxiety disorders. Alcohol-induced anxiety occurs when an individual consumes alcohol. While the individual may feel as though their anxiety is reduced, this is not the case. As the body learns and adjusts to increased amounts of alcohol in the system, more is needed to achieve the same effects.

Many medications also include feelings of anxiety as a side effect. The more often an individual abuses certain substances, the more likely they are to form an anxiety disorder as a result.

Risk Factors

Certain factors put you at a higher risk of developing substance abuse disorders with anxiety. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Gender, as women are twice as likely to develop anxiety disorders than men
  • Increased stress at home, work, or school
  • Lack of sleep
  • Genetics
  • Age

It’s important to note any potential risks you have for developing a substance abuse disorder when seeking treatment for anxiety. If you have reason to believe you may be at risk, speak with your doctor about your options.

Treatment Options for Anxiety Disorders and Substance Abuse

As mental health awareness increases, more treatment options are becoming available for those suffering from anxiety disorders. Although anxiety cannot be cured, there are ways you can cope with and lessen your symptoms.

Therapy and Counseling

There are many different forms of counseling that can be used to treat anxiety. Whether you prefer solo counseling or would benefit from group therapy, there are people you can speak with about your disorder. Having someone to talk to about your disorder can help relieve your anxiety.

If you are struggling with substance abuse, there are treatment programs available to help you, too. You don’t have to go through your struggle alone; search around for various groups and give them a try. Don’t be afraid to test multiple different types of therapy so that you can find what works for you.

Home Remedies

There are techniques you can use to reduce stress from the comforts of home. One of the best things you can do to decrease feelings of anxiety is to improve your sleep schedule. Sleep helps the mind relax and refresh itself after a long day; the better quality sleep you get, the better you will feel.

Exercising for at least 30 minutes each day can also relieve feelings of anxiety. Burning energy off through cardio can take pressure off the mind and body. No matter what form of exercise you prefer, doing something every day can get rid of those anxious thoughts and get your mind on something else.

Finding a hobby or job that you enjoy can also take your mind off of whatever is causing you anxiety. Test out different hobbies to see what interests you and stick to them. Finding a friend who enjoys the same things can also help improve your mood while doing what you love.

Prescription Medications

If you continue to struggle with anxiety, you may want to talk to your doctor about safe prescription medications for anxiety. There are many types of medication available, so ask about your options. Your practitioner will work with you to find a type of medication that will help your anxiety without causing a dependency on the medication.

Educate Yourself During Mental Health Awareness Month

It’s important that we all educate ourselves about mental health so that we can help ourselves and those around us. This mental health awareness month, take the time to educate yourself and learn as much as you can. Now that you know how anxiety and substance abuse are linked, you can see the signs in yourself and your loved ones and get them the help they need.

Do you know someone who is struggling with substance abuse?

We’re here to help. Contact us with any questions or concerns you have about our substance abuse rehabilitation programs and continue reading our blog for more information today.


References & Resources

  1. Anxiety Facts. Facts | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA. (n.d.). Retrieved May 26, 2022, from https://adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/women/facts
  2. Ellis, R. R. (n.d.). 7 types of drugs & medications that can cause anxiety. WebMD. Retrieved May 26, 2022, from https://www.webmd.com/anxiety-panic/anxiety-causing-meds
  3. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2020, November 18). Marijuana. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved May 26, 2022, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements-marijuana/art-20364974
  4. Swhelper. (2019, April 7). The importance of Mental Health Awareness. SWHELPER. Retrieved May 26, 2022, from https://swhelper.org/2015/11/17/importance-mental-health-awareness/

Clinically Reviewed By

Dawn Masick, LMFT

Dawn has experience dealing with various relational, emotional, and psychological struggles. Dawn’s training has prepared her to work with children, teens, young adults, adults, couples, and families. She has undergone training in DBT, TF-CBT, and Family Therapy.  Other competencies include dealing with ADHD, mood/anxiety disorders, parenting challenges, addiction, PTSD, co- dependency, and relationship issues. I have experience in residential, school-based mental health, children’s community mental health, victims of crime (VOC), and private practice settings.

Dawn has been committed to guiding clients through their trauma, coming alongside them in their healing, and supporting them as they navigate life changes. Dawn’s passion is working with clients struggling with trauma in substance abuse and mental health.