stressed woman

The Relationship Between Stress and Addiction


Sober Recovery Expert Author

stressed woman

In times of stress, an addict reaches out to his favorite substance to help get him through the current crisis. This substance of choice acts as both a crutch and a friend. In this way, it is no wonder that stress feeds into addiction. But what if I told you a stressful environment may be a factor in addiction before an individual even becomes substance-dependent?

Study: A Matter of Social Conditions

If the society we live in reflects the animal instincts of domination and subordination, if humans are anything like the macaque monkeys in a study done by Wake Forest University School of Medicine, then there are significant differences between the dopaminergic systems of those who perceive themselves as subordinates and those whose self-perception is one of dominance.

During times of stress, addicts reach out to their favorite substances to help get through the situation.

In the study, published "Social Dominance in Monkeys: Dopamine D2 Receptors and Cocaine Self-Administration," Michael Nader and his colleagues measured the density of a dopamine receptor protein called D2. The more D2 present, the more dopamine activity in the brain. The scientists measured the D2 present in the brains of isolated macaques and then introduced them in cages of four, creating a new “social group.”

Soon after its inception, the social group established a dominance hierarchy. Scientists found a positive correlation between a monkey’s dominance and its density of D2 receptor proteins. Why does this matter? Well, researchers also introduced these monkeys to cocaine, allowing them to self-administer the drug by pressing a lever. Results showed the dominant monkeys found a preferred level of the drug and didn't increase their dosage past this point. In contrast, the subordinate monkeys kept increasing their dosages over time, suggesting a classic symptom of addiction: these monkeys needed more cocaine to get their “fix.”

This study was based on monkeys, however, it isn’t entirely illogical to consider how this study’s findings might support the role of an environment in the development of addiction. If the subordinate macaques later showed more addictive behavior towards cocaine than the dominant macaques, who had measurably increased dopaminergic activity, then perhaps addictive tendencies may be in part due to one’s perception of his or her ranking in the hierarchy of society.

The Part that Stress Plays

It is no secret that stress plays a large part in addiction. Many studies have identified particular stressors and individual human variables that can predict substance use and abuse. The negative effects of early life stress, child abuse, and aggregated adversity alter chemicals in the brain and form the underlying pathology associated with stress-related addiction.

Psychosocial and behavioral scientists have clearly shown that there is a decrease in behavioral control and an increase in impulsiveness when emotional and physiological stresses increase. The greater the level of stress and the longer it lasts, the greater the risk of dysfunctional behaviors. This conclusion applies to both early stress factors and more immediate factors.

Further, these studies reveal that cumulative early and immediate stress incidences were significantly predictive of alcohol and drug abuse. The types of adverse events strongly associated with early addictive vulnerability were:

  • Parental divorce or conflict

  • Abandonment

  • Forced separation from parents

  • Loss of child cue to death or removal

  • Unfaithfulness by significant other,

  • Loss of home due to natural disaster,

  • Death of a close one

  • Emotional abuse or neglect

  • Sexual abuse

  • Rape

  • Physical abuse by a trusted relative, caretaker or friend

  • Victim of a gun shooting

  • Observing violent victimizing actions

The more science discovers about addiction, the more complex the subject becomes. Addiction seemingly touches all parts of an individual--physical, emotional, social, and behavioral. Medical and psychosocial science has come a long way, paving a path for the understanding of addiction and addicts alike. Hopefully, more people will realize substance abusers are not weak individuals but complex products of their heredity and environment.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for drug addiction, please visit our directory of treatment centers or call 800-891-8171 to start the path to recovery today.

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