Addiction occurs when a person becomes dependent on drugs, or when he or she continues to use drugs, despite negative health and social consequences.
Once addicted to a substance, it is very difficult for an individual to stop using it. Thus, substance abuse continues in cycles of recovery and relapse. It’s a challenging journey, and 40 to 60 percent of the time, a person who truly wants to recover still find themselves in relapse.
Identifying methods to diminish the rate of substance abuse and relapse often requires scientists and clinicians to look beyond the substances and explore other relevant areas, such as stress and exercise.
How Stress Feeds Addiction
Stress is a risk factor in the development of addiction to drugs and alcohol abuse. It also makes an addict vulnerable to relapse. Stress is an inevitable part of life. It cannot be entirely avoided, so what steps can one take to reduce its negative impact on addiction recovery? How might we cope with stress?
Dopamine is a feel-good neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. When a person uses drugs, dopamine kicks in and creates a feeling of extreme pleasure. Such a feeling is a welcome break from stress, so perhaps the key to reducing drug use and relapse is to find a feel-good substitute, something that produces dopamine without the harmful effects of drugs. Something that can rewire us to seek out healthy activities rather than destructive chemicals.
And thus, we turn to exercise, which can alter the brain's dopamine pathway. This pathway is linked to the rewarding and reinforcing properties of drugs.
The Role of Exercise in Addiction Recovery
Exercise provides a natural way to increase dopamine, similar to the chemical effect that occurs in the brain during drug or alcohol abuse. For recovering individuals, physical activity can not only help reduce stress, it may create the euphoric feelings previously associated with substance abuse, only in a natural and healthy way.
Exercise-based interventions have long been shown to reduce stress and decrease the likelihood of drug dependence, while also diminishing cravings and inhibiting relapse. In other words, aerobic exercise is inversely related to substance use and abuse.
Emerging research using animal models shows that regular aerobic exercise decreases stress-induced cocaine-seeking behavior. The workout in this research was one hour on a treadmill, five times a week. In this latest study, exercise reduced stress hormones and elevated mood. The investigators concluded that working out may help reduce the anxiety and negative emotions associated with withdrawal and substance abuse.
So in addition to preventing physical health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis, along with certain mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, exercise may also prevent relapse.
A Holistic Approach for Addiction Recovery
Using exercise to reduce the level of stress may be a promising avenue of hope. Since stress and negative emotions are among the major causes of relapse, exercise appears to play a major role in helping to lessen the potential of falling off the wagon.
However, lowering stress is not enough on its own to beat addiction and create a life of sobriety. While exercising can help curb a huge relapse trigger, the authors of this recent study emphasize that exercise for stress reduction is only part of a successful total recovery program. At the end of the day, a sober journey with the support of a community comprised of like-minded people and addiction specialists remains a primary factor in helping sustain recovery.
There is no doubt that learning effective methods of managing stress is essential to long-term recovery. However, living a life of sobriety sees higher chances of success with a comprehensive treatment program. Exercise alone is not a replacement for inpatient treatment and medical monitoring (when necessary), group counseling, individual therapy, peer support groups, outpatient support, and a complete aftercare plan. In fact, most experts believe that ongoing counseling and lifelong treatment is essential in maintaining a sober lifestyle.