Anxiety and substance abuse have gone hand-in-hand for many, many years. In fact, the symptoms linked to addiction and anxiety are so similar it can be difficult to distinguish the different effects between the two.

Anxiety is the natural response someone has to an uncomfortable or stressful situation. It is usually accompanied by a feeling of fear or distress. Everyone has experienced some level of anxiety in their lives. However, the level of severity and how anxiety affects an individual’s life can help determine whether an anxiety disorder is present.

Normal anxiety triggers exist in everyday life. Moving to a new place, starting a new job, and opening up a business are examples of situations that can provoke everyday anxiety. However, if the feelings begin to be debilitating and interfere with someone’s life, it is worth investigating professional help.

Types of Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders can be broken down into a few different categories.


Excessive, debilitating fear or worry can be a sign of generalized anxiety disorder. Often the fear and worry cannot be tied to a current event, it is just present. A disorder might be intensified by a future perceived threat and can result in negative or destructive behaviors such as alcohol or drug use to releive thier anxiety.


A person may experience continuous obsessive thoughts or fears that they try to manage with repetitive behavior. For example, someone who worries about staying clean all the time might excessively wash their hands. Some people develop rituals that must be done before they leave thier homes.

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This type of anxiety is caused by a major, likely traumatic, event such as a death in the family, a car accident, or a smaller stressor such as starting a new school. Specific disorders can include:

  • Panic Disorders
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Social Anxiety Disorder
  • Phobias
  • Separation Anxiety Disorder

Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders

The way in which an anxiety disorder presents itself in an individual can vary greatly from person to person. It might mean anything from heart palpitations to a panic attack. Other symptoms could include:

  • Constant fear, worry, or panic
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Lack of focus and difficulty concentrating
  • Rapid breathing or shortness of breath
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Restlessness
  • Consistent nightmares
  • Repetitive painful thoughts and memories
  • Cold or sweaty hands and feet

When being evaluated by a medical professional when it is suspected that an anxiety disorder is present, they will likely first want to rule out whether any underlying medical condition could be the culprit of the anxiety.

Anxiety on its own can cause serious medical conditions. It is suspected that anxiety can create biological changes in the body such as affecting hormonal and autonomic responses, increased inflammation in the body and decreased function of the immune system. The effects can result in heart issues, high blood pressure, and susceptibility to weight gain.

Anxiety disorders can be treated in a variety of ways including medications, psychotherapy, or with complementary or alternative therapies. A combination of treatments might be used depending upon the severity of the anxiety disorder. Working with a medical professional highly recommended for the proper management of symptoms.

Anxiety and Substance Abuse

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more Americans suffer from anxiety disorders than from any other type of mental illness. In the US, 18% of adults experience some form of anxiety.

Individuals who suffer from anxiety often use alcohol or drugs to attempt to manage their symptoms. Self-medicating can be extremely dangerous with lethal consequences.

While in the short-term, alcohol or drugs might offer an escape, substance use can actually exacerbate the symptoms of an anxiety disorder. This can lead to substance abuse, addictive behaviors, and dependencies. There are a few additional reasons for this:


Someone with a family history of both anxiety and substance use disorders will likely have a stronger susceptibility to being diagnosed with both.


An individual who uses drugs or alcohol can experience anxiety-like symptoms when the substance is absent from their body.


Both anxiety and addiction are known to affect an individual biologically, specifically with changes in the brain.

When a person has mental illness such as anxiety and a substance use disorder is often diagnosed as having co-occurring disorders. Managing this dual diagnsosis means ensuring that the treatment for one disorder does not fuel the symptoms of the other disorder.

Substance use disorders and anxiety disorders are both illnesses. Because treatment of both disorders is necessary for recovery, it is imperative to seek professional help.

If you or a loved one are suffering from anxiety and addiction, you are not alone. We are here for you and we are here to help.