Examining the Neurobiological Factors of Anxiety and Addiction

Anxiety and addiction are often connected, creating a challenging cycle for those affected. Having both anxiety and addiction at the same time is referred to as having a dual diagnosis or a co-occurring disorder. Understanding the connection between the two is essential for effective treatment.

Addiction, Anxiety, and the Brain

When examining the relationship between anxiety and addiction, we first need to understand how the brain’s reward system works. Whenever an individual engages in pleasurable activities or experiences, the brain’s reward system is activated. This leads to the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine which result in feelings of euphoria, happiness, and wellbeing. This is a natural process that encourages us to repeat pleasurable behaviors.

Unfortunately, taking drugs or alcohol yields the same effect which is why addiction is so difficult to overcome. The brain comes to associate the addictive substance with feelings of euphoria, commonly known as getting high, and craves more of it. Long-term exposure to these same substances results in irreversible changes where the brain has difficulty regulating impulses, emotions, and actions.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is mainly associated with the brain’s stress response system. When a person encounters a threat or stressor, the brain releases stress hormones to prepare the body for flight or fight. In individuals with anxiety disorder, this system can become overactive, causing persistent worry and fear even when no real threat exists.

Anxiety and Addiction

In people struggling with anxiety disorder, an overactive stress system can affect dopamine regulation in the brain. The result is that the individual may no longer find pleasure in activities they previously enjoyed.

Since taking drugs or alcohol directly increases dopamine and leads to feelings of pleasure and euphoria, those with anxiety may self-medicate in an attempt to escape their anxious thoughts or feelings. The addictive substances may help these individuals to numb themselves, calm down, relax or even fall asleep.

However, prolonged substance use can disrupt the brain’s natural dopamine regulation. This means that individuals may develop tolerance, requiring more of the substance to achieve the same pleasurable effects, eventually leading to addiction.

Additionally, chronic substance abuse may damage the brain and body mechanisms that help alleviate anxiety symptoms, causing anxiety to increase over time. This traps individuals in a vicious cycle of addiction and anxiety.

Treating Co-Occurring Anxiety and Addiction

Treating co-occurring anxiety and addiction requires integrated care with treatment programs that have been adapted to address both conditions simultaneously.

At Findlay Recovery Center we offer the right combination of detox, behavioral therapy, holistic approaches and aftercare and support to help those battling a dual diagnosis. Our residential drug treatment program is based on individualized treatment. This means we focus on helping those struggling with substance abuse to understand the underlying causes as well as their triggers in order to avoid relapse and attain long-term sobriety. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us if you or your loved one is battling anxiety and addiction. We’re always ready and happy to help.

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