The Connection Between Anxiety and Addiction

Learn about the signs, symptoms, treatment options, and connection between anxiety and addiction.


Anxiety and Addiction

Table of Contents


Anxiety is an emotion everyone struggles with at some time during their lives. Feelings of anxiety may arise from a variety of sources, including events, situations, and even people, leading to an elevated sense of worry and fear about what the future may hold. There are many examples of day-to-day events that can cause symptoms of anxiety. For example, going to a job interview, getting married, starting at a new school, and many others. For most people, these emotions resolve on their own shortly after the event or situation ends.

Anxiety Disorders

Feelings of intense anxiety can turn to terror and become so overwhelming that they lead to panic attacks. When someone struggles with prolonged symptoms of anxiety that do not self-resolve. It could indicate the presence of an anxiety disorder.

An anxiety disorder can cause feelings, such as excessive worry, persistent fear, and overwhelming panic, to occur when faced with everyday situations. Typically, anxiety symptoms are impossible to manage without help or anxiety counseling, and they often seem disproportionate to any potential danger that may occur.

Self-Medication With Anxiety

Some people attempt to dull their feelings of anxiety through drugs and alcohol. This practice is referred to as self-medication and can lead to challenges, such as worsened symptoms, with addiction and anxiety as a co-occurring disorder. The best way to overcome these symptoms is with anxiety therapy at a program like The PAC Program, where we can help patients overcome anxiety without using substances to cope.

Common Types of Anxiety Disorders

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) lists diagnostic criteria used by mental health providers to assess signs of anxiety and assist with diagnosing anxiety disorders. While there are several possible diagnoses listed in the DSM-5. Five specific types are more common among the population than others:

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Someone with generalized anxiety disorder experiences chronic anxiety symptoms that do not resolve, even in the absence of potential triggers. They struggle with feelings of heightened worry and tension regardless of whether there is a reason to feel such emotions.

Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder characterized by repeated and often unexpected episodes of overwhelming fear. Fear is accompanied by various physical challenges, including racing heart, difficulty breathing, stomach problems, and others.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder often occurs after someone experiences an event that leads to harm or the threat of harm—natural disasters, assault, violence, and accidents. For example, soldiers who serve on active combat deployments experience high rates of PTSD.

Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobias)

People with social anxiety disorders, also referred to as social phobias, experience uncontrollable anxiety and feelings of self-consciousness during everyday social situations. Social anxiety and addiction are frequently connected as someone with this disorder may use alcohol or drugs to help tolerate social situations better. The desire or need to be present in a social setting leads to more frequent and substantial substance use, creating ongoing struggles with co-occurring addiction and anxiety.

Specific Phobias

A specific phobia is a fear or worry related to a specific thing. Specific phobias involve an irrational yet intense and powerful fear of something that likely poses little to no danger. People can develop a specific phobia of virtually anything, such as water, cotton, or peanut butter.

Some develop a fear of situations or things that could be harmful, such as needles, blood, or insects. While many adults realize there is little to be afraid of when faced with these triggering objects or situations. They cannot control their fears and exposure brings about severe anxiety.

The Connection Between Anxiety and Addiction

While anxiety can affect anyone, there is a strong relationship between anxiety and addiction. Recent research studies indicate nearly thirty percent of Americans with a severe mental health condition also have a substance use disorder.

Unfortunately, very few understand the unique challenges that can arise from co-occurring addiction and anxiety disorders. Therefore, they never receive the treatment they need at a program that supports both anxiety and addiction recovery.

Risk Factors for Anxiety and Addiction

Research has not provided a singular cause or risk factor that increases one’s risk for developing an anxiety disorder. Studies indicate it is likely a combination of several factors, including genetic and environmental elements. Some studies show that anxiety disorders have a genetic connection as some families have multiple individuals with anxiety disorders among relatives. Additionally, research shows that you are at an increased risk for developing anxiety if a first-degree relative struggles with an anxiety disorder.

Self-Medication for Anxiety and Addiction

A very common link to anxiety and addiction is self-medication. When someone struggles with crippling anxiety symptoms, it is not uncommon to reach for substances that will help calm their emotions and resume their day-to-day obligations. Unfortunately, using drugs or alcohol to cope with anxiety is the first step towards greater challenges. It does not take long before symptoms of addiction develop, and they cannot manage anxiety without drugs or alcohol.

In other cases, the desire to manage symptoms of addiction can lead to anxiety. Most substances impact the brain in some form. Often, the areas of the brain that experience the most significant changes are those that manage stress, behavior, and emotional responses. When these areas of the brain are altered due to long-term substance abuse, they do not function adequately without substances.

Therefore, when someone tries to stop or reduce the amount of the substance, withdrawal symptoms occur, leading to increased anxiety. Withdrawal symptoms can be difficult to manage without the support of an addiction treatment program specializing in medically supported detox and co-occurring disorder (addiction and anxiety) treatment.

Environmental Impacts on Anxiety and Addiction

Another relationship between anxiety and addiction is how one’s environment impacts anxiety symptoms. Some research indicates people may be at an increased risk for developing an anxiety disorder or co-occurring addiction and anxiety if they experience a stressful or traumatic event. For example, violence, abuse, prolonged illness, or a natural disaster.

Environmental Impacts for Anxiety and Addiction

Anxiety and Addiction Signs and Symptoms

Mild anxiety is normal and expected from time to time. There are many life events that produce a certain amount of worry or stress. However, if these emotions do not resolve on their own after the situation itself resolves, it may suggest a need for anxiety treatment at The PAC Program. 

When someone struggles with anxiety or an anxiety disorder, there are several signs and symptoms they will experience that persist well beyond the circumstances that caused a change in their emotional state. These may include feeling irritable, restless, on edge, having difficulties sleeping, inability to control feelings of worry, inability to focus or concentrate, feeling fatigued, and chronic muscle tension or pain.

Warning Signs for Anxiety and Addiction

The warning signs of addiction may be more difficult to list because drugs and alcohol each produce unique effects. Additionally, two people may abuse the same substance and experience different effects or similar effects but with different severity. Knowing the warning signs of addiction requires knowing more about the substance being misused.

In many cases, someone with an addiction will exhibit emotional, physical, and behavioral changes different from their “usual.” For example, they may begin to have difficulties with the law, finances, or relationships. 

In addition, their physical appearance may change, or they may have mood swings that are sudden or potentially aggressive. Also, they may begin to withdraw from friends or loved ones or act secretive and avoid public spaces.

Anxiety and Addiction Treatment and Recovery Programs

The best treatment for anxiety and addiction is dual diagnosis treatment. At a dual diagnosis treatment program, the treatment team will work with the patient to design a plan that addresses all areas of their physical and psychological health. 

Through comprehensive, evidence-based therapy techniques, patients will learn how to identify and change the thoughts and behaviors that have led to maladaptive and addictive behaviors, such as using alcohol to self-medicate.

Another significant benefit of choosing a dual-diagnosis treatment program is learning how to identify triggers. When a patient struggles with anxiety, simple day-to-day situations or obligations can be triggering. 

So, learning to manage triggering places, people, or events without using a substance is a vital part of recovery from anxiety and substance use disorders. In addition, learning about and how to use healthy coping strategies to handle triggers is a vital part of ongoing recovery and relapse prevention.

Treatment at The PAC Program

At our dual diagnosis treatment program, the team at The PAC Program will use evidence-based treatment options and psychotherapy models, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). These therapy methods have proven successful in helping patients with co-occurring anxiety and addiction learn to manage and overcome their symptoms.

In addition to therapy, we use peer support programs, such as 12-step programs, anxiety support groups, family support, and holistic approaches like mindfulness strategies. Depending on each patients’ unique needs, anti-anxiety medication might be included as part of their treatment program to help reduce the intensity of anxiety symptoms during the early stages of treatment.

If you or a loved one struggles with co-occurring addiction and anxiety, seeking help at our dual diagnosis treatment center is a vital step towards achieving sobriety and lasting recovery. Don’t wait. Call us now at The PAC Program to learn more about how we can help.


If you or a loved one needs help, please call us at
623-523-4748 and our team at Blueprints For Recovery in Arizona will help.

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