How To Handle Stress Without Substance Abuse

01/14/20: Addiction Recovery
Stress is an entirely normal reaction to abnormal circumstances in one’s life. Everyone has experienced some form of stress, and believe it or not, some stress can be good for us! However, there are types of stress that can have severe negative effects on a person’s mental and physical wellbeing. If this stress is not addressed in a timely manner and a healthy way, it can lead to things like long-term mental illness and addiction. In this article, we will discuss how stress affects our minds and bodies, the relationship between stress and addiction, and how to effectively manage stress so that it does not leave us vulnerable to addiction.

What is Stress?

When most people hear the word “stress”, they automatically associate it with something bad. After all, no one wants to be stressed… right? This actually isn’t true. Stress is actually a natural biological reaction to outside stimuli that clues us in when something isn’t quite right. If we didn’t get stressed, we probably wouldn’t be very effective as a species. Researchers actually consider there to be two categories of stress: healthy, and unhealthy. Yes, not all stress is bad — some of it can even be good for us! Here are the different types of stress one can experience:

Acute Stress

This kind of stress happens instantly as a response to a perceived threat or danger: AKA, a fight or flight response. This type of occurs to prepare the body to defend itself. During this short-term response, the brain tells the body to increase cortisol levels, adrenaline, and other hormones that produce an increased heart and breathing rate, higher blood pressure, etc.

Chronic Stress

This is sort of the opposite of acute stress, in that this adds up over time and will be experienced long-term if nothing is done to manage it. This is the kind of stress that is unhealthy and can lead to negative mental, emotional, and physical effects. It is also the type that people most often attempt to manage with drugs or alcohol, leading to addiction.


Also known as “good stress”, this is what one experiences during important or meaningful events that tend to get us excited (but also nervous)! For example, things like:
  • Marriage
  • Getting a promotion
  • Having a baby
  • Winning money
  • Meeting new people
  • Graduating


Also known as “bad stress.” This occurs alongside not-so-exciting events such as:
  • Getting a divorce
  • Getting in trouble/punished
  • Getting hurt/injured
  • Experiencing financial Problems
  • Struggles at work

How Many People are Affected by Stress?

Just how prevalent is stress in the United States, and how does it affect our daily life? The American Institute of Stress shows us that stress is causing a lot of really troubling issues for a large number of Americans. A whopping 77 percent of Americans cite physical symptoms from stress, and 73 percent emotional and mental symptoms that interfere with their daily functioning. If so many of us are experiencing these major repercussions from stress, it means that many more people are vulnerable to slipping into addiction than we might think.

How Stress Can Lead to Addiction

As we mentioned, chronic distress can take a toll on the body. These symptoms can range from mildly uncomfortable to downright unbearable. Even the smallest of symptoms can wear a person down over time. Here are some of the most common effects:
  • depression
  • erectile dysfunction
  • fertility problems
  • headaches
  • heart problems
  • heartburn
  • high blood pressure
  • high blood sugar
  • insomnia
  • low sex drive
  • missed periods
  • pounding heart
  • rapid breathing
  • stomach pains
  • tense muscles
  • weakened immune system
Naturally, any person would want to escape these symptoms, especially if they persist for a long time. A negative or unstable emotional state will leave anyone vulnerable to adapting unhealthy coping mechanisms. There is strong evidence connecting chronic stress with the motivation to abuse drugs or alcohol. Stressful experiences during childhood such as physical and sexual abuse, neglect, domestic violence, family dysfunction, etc are strongly associated with an increased risk for addiction. In addition, unhappy marriages, dissatisfaction with employment, harassment, etc are often cited as major catalysts for addiction. Drugs, alcohol, certain foods, and activities have the same effect of stimulating the brain’s reward center by releasing dopamine, causing us to experience a pleasurable response. The brain remembers the good feeling that the substance or activity caused, and it will instill a desire in you to continue seeking out whatever caused the response. These pleasurable experiences are especially desired when the person is also experiencing stress, as the dopamine provides an escape from the negative feelings that come along with chronic stress. Another important factor in whether or not a person develops an addiction due to stress is if they have healthy coping skills. A lack of healthy coping skills is a big predictor of someone turning to drugs, alcohol, or other damaging methods of managing painful emotions.

How to Handle Stress Without Substance Abuse

Stress can be managed — even if it's chronic! Nip it in the bud before it gets to be too much. Here are some ways you can cope with stress in a healthy way and avoid turning to addiction:


Exercising is one of the best ways to reduce stress. It gets your blood flowing, increases dopamine, and makes you feel accomplished, among other things. Even simple walks around the neighborhood will have a profound positive impact on your mental state. Try and work up to an hour per day, and you will definitely see a difference!

Breathing Techniques

Stopping for a moment to focus on nothing but breathing can really help re-direct and calm your mind. It will also increase oxygen flow to your brain, helping you become more mentally alert but also relaxed. Take a deep breath in through the nose, hold for a few seconds, then release it out through your mouth. Repeat for 5–10 minutes.

Eat Healthily

What we put into our body has great significance in our physical and mental wellbeing. Your body performs much better when its nutritional needs are being met. Try and eat less processed foods and focus on incorporating more whole plant foods into your diet. When you present your body with the fuel it needs, you’ll find that your body and brain will be in tip-top shape.

Dedicate Time to Relaxing

In this fast-paced, technology-saturated world, it can be difficult to schedule time to just relax. Even on weekends or during time off work, we occupy our time with watching television, playing video games, doing chores, or other activities that don’t allow our minds and bodies to enter a truly relaxed state. Try to find at least 20 minutes a day to simply lie in a comfortable position and just close your eyes and exist at that moment.

Do Yoga or Meditate 

Yoga and meditation are excellent ways to train our brains to work through emotional and physical pain. Both of these activities are all about performing uncomfortable physical and mental tasks, but continuing pushing through. In yoga, you will have to hold poses that are physically challenging for your body, but through breathing and focus, you train yourself to be able to continue. Meditation is more about training your brain to acknowledge the tough stuff, but not to dwell on it too long and become lost in grief. Instead, through meditation, you can learn to simply let things be as they are, and not worry too much about the outcome.

Make Time for Hobbies

Taking time to do things you enjoy can be difficult when you are under extreme stress. You may feel like you do not have the energy to do the things you once enjoyed. But try to spend at least a little bit of time every day on personal hobbies, you might be surprised at how easy it is to slip back into it once you actually start. Hobbies and activities can help distract you from the negative effects of stress, and break a negative thought spiral.

Talk to Someone

Talking to friends and family is beneficial, but often times it’s even better to also meet with a therapist/counselor on a consistent basis. Together, you can work on building your coping skills and preparing you to handle all the difficulties life throws at you, without spiraling into a stress-induced panic. A lot of the time, addiction sets in because the individual doesn’t feel that there is any other way to numb the pain. But with the proper knowledge and coping skills, you will be equipped with the ability to deal with your stress in healthy ways and avoid using harmful substances to get by.

If you or someone you know needs help with addiction, contact 602-737-1619 or email [email protected] to get the help you need. Our acclaimed recovery environment merges upscale, luxury accommodations with affordability, clinical expertise and an unwavering commitment to patient care and aftercare.

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