Anxiety and Substance Abuse: What’s the Link?

Anxiety and Substance Abuse: What’s the Link?

Society hasn’t always taken anxiety seriously. People may have joked with you about waiting until your anxiety passes to feel better, but anyone who lives with anxiety knows that it isn’t so easy to deal with. But what is the link between anxiety and substance abuse? Many people with this condition turn to substances like drugs or alcohol to cope with their symptoms. These are the most prevalent links between anxiety and substance abuse, plus a few ways to get treatment and regain control over your mental health.

It’s no secret that substance abuse is a serious problem. Many people have heard these stats before: In the U.S., almost 20 million adults struggle with an addiction to alcohol or drugs. And, about one-third of those who are addicted to substances will develop another disease as a result of their addiction, such as anxiety disorders or depression.

These diseases can be difficult to manage on your own, which is why many people turn to treatment centers and support groups after they finish rehab so they can continue working toward a sober lifestyle.

While you might assume that people who struggle with anxiety and/or depression don’t also struggle with substance abuse, the truth is that both conditions often go hand-in-hand. Let’s take a closer look at the link between anxiety and substance abuse as well as what you can do if you believe you may be struggling with both conditions simultaneously.


What’s the Link Between Anxiety and Addiction?

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) has research that shows how people diagnosed with anxiety disorders are two to three times more likely to develop substance abuse disorders too. People suffering from anxiety may self-medicate with drugs or alcohol.

There are many reasons for this occurrence, but these are a few of the most common ways the two conditions are related.

1. Social Anxiety Triggers Coping Mechanisms

Why does my anxiety come and go for no reason?

Social butterflies love being around people and making personal connections, but many people have the opposite reaction to social settings. You may have a social anxiety disorder if being around strangers or loved ones activate your flight or fight response that leads to anxiety attack symptoms like:

  • A racing heartbeat
  • Excessive sweating
  • Lightheadedness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness

It’s also more likely that you’ll be around addictive substances with other people. They might want to meet for drinks, making it easier to drink heavily to reduce your anxiety symptoms and have a more enjoyable experience.

You’re not alone if this situation led to your substance reliance. Everyone wants to be able to have fun with their loved ones. There’s also a shared pressure not to bring low energy to the group or appear uncomfortable. We recommend checking the best over-the-counter medication for social anxiety if you have social anxiety instead of resulting to substance abuse.

2. PTSD Leads to Substance Reliance

People develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from various experiences. You may have returned from deployment, been targeted for physical assault, or survived sexual violence. Many forms of abuse can linger in the mind and change how you interact with the world.

Many people don’t realize that PTSD is an anxiety disorder. Sensory or memory flashbacks lead to anxiety symptoms that can recur for months or years. It’s a stressful, heartbreaking disorder that causes many individuals to rely on addictive substances to help them cope between or during their PTSD episodes.

Why can’t you always tell when you’re feeling anxious?

3. Panic Disorders Make People Crave Safety

You may also deal with frequent anxiety attacks that don’t have a specific cause. One might occur while you’re driving, while another might happen while you’re cooking dinner or reading a book. Panic disorders are challenging to deal with because those who live with them can’t identify the root cause for their overwhelming dread, sense of panic, or intense moments of fear.

Although you can redirect your thinking to positive thoughts and reduce your stress, that may not always work when your anxiety is strongest. Substances like alcohol or drugs immediately reduce panic disorder symptoms and often become the primary way people cope with their panic episodes to find relief and momentary safety.

4. Anxiety Phobias Require Extra Strength

When someone faces overwhelming fear, the wave of anxiety comes with a sense of helplessness. Seeking strength is the most immediate way to gain your footing and get through a panic attack, so sometimes people with anxiety phobias look for that strength in substances.

Alcohol and drugs can ease the muscle tension, racing heart rate, and urge to run that comes with anxiety related to specific situations. Anxiety phobias like the fear of public speaking may be temporarily easier to manage if someone has a few drinks before presenting at work or uses their preferred drugs before a job interview.

Although the momentary relief makes people feel stronger, substance abuse has long-term health repercussions. It isn’t a sustainable solution to anything, even if it’s a common one.

5. Increased Anxiety Creates Shame Spirals

There are many forms of anxiety, but people with any anxiety diagnosis share one familiar feeling — shame. It can feel embarrassing to lose a battle with your mind or become unable to control your emotions. Shame spirals may drag on for hours, days, or even weeks. Substances like drugs and alcohol immediately change your state of mind and provide temporary relief.

It’s especially common to deal with shame spirals with substance abuse at home. No one will see someone who drinks in the morning to prepare for a social outing or another nerve-wracking commitment later. Without anyone watching, it’s all too easy to start abusing substances and become dependent on them.

6. Common Symptoms Can Look Like Withdrawal

Sometimes people don’t realize they’re in the middle of an anxiety or panic attack. They don’t always require putting your life on pause. An individual may experience muscle shaking or a raised heart rate and assume that it’s related to their substance reliance. If it’s been longer than usual between usages, it’s easy to think similar symptoms are related.

Instead of recognizing their state of mind, the person dealing with anxiety might think they’re in withdrawal. It can lead to heavier substance abuse to avoid the symptoms, which disappear as the substances mute the anxiety. It complicates any addiction and makes it more of a daily necessity for anyone with chronic anxiety.

How to Treat Anxiety and Substance Abuse

Once you learn more about why substance abuse and anxiety often go hand-in-hand, it’s time to discover the steps anyone can take to resolve both conditions and find peace.

1. Recognize Your Anxiety Triggers

It may sound too simple, but the first step to dissolving the link between anxiety and addiction is learning which triggers affect you the most. Many possible things intensify anxious states of mind, like:

  • Caffeine
  • Medication
  • Over or undereating
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Specific topics related to past traumatic experiences

Journaling is a great way to take this baby step toward recovery. Reflect on your entries to see what happens most frequently before your anxiety becomes debilitating or too intense. After recognizing what makes it worse, you can dismantle the root causes that make addictive substances seem like the only solution.

2. Highlight Your Preferred Substances

Next, think about which substances you rely on most frequently. You may drink a few bottles of wine every night, finish a six-pack of beer with a meal or keep drugs nearby at all times in case your anxiety spikes.

Your journal entries can also point out the specific substances that have become your coping mechanisms. If you’re unsure about what you rely on, honest entries highlight what gets you through panic attacks or anxiety symptoms.

3. Get Professional Help

Some people may be able to wean themselves off drugs or alcohol and remain in sobriety. However, that’s not always the case. It also shouldn’t be the case for anyone abusing substances that could cause intense withdrawal symptoms and hospitalization or death if they quit those substances all at once.

Seek professional help when you’re ready to unravel your anxiety and substance abuse. There are many different therapies you can try to make progress, such as:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • Exposure therapy
  • Psychotherapy
  • Social skills training
  • Medication and coaching

An expert trained in each specific field will help you determine which therapies work best for your mind and body. Invest your time and energy into your recovery with proven mental health tools that make coping more manageable.

4. Give Yourself Time

Like with anything in life, you’ll have to practice to effectively handle your anxiety without addictive substances. Learn from your progress and mistakes. Take notes while you’re doubting yourself or trying something new. Everything becomes a lesson that helps your mindset get better every day.

You’ll also need time to distance yourself from your addiction. When addictive substances start going away or disappear altogether, your anxiety might make you panic and think you can’t live without them. As each day in sobriety passes, you’ll realize you have the tools and strength to leave that lifestyle in the past.

5. Form a Support System

Seeking help is a personal decision. Recovery is a journey. It’s much easier to stay sober and maintain a healthy relationship with your anxiety disorder when you have people to lean on.

Look into joining an alcohol or narcotics anonymous group in your hometown. You’ll bond with people who share your same goals and build a new community. Enjoy time outside of those groups by asking your closest friends to hang out or try positive, engaging activities.

Volunteering together, taking classes, or signing up for group lessons will help you continue to bond while working on situations where your anxiety might otherwise take over.

People in recovery conquer their addictions more easily when they have others to talk with and lean on. Give yourself a better chance at regaining control over your mental health and defeating your addiction by making a support system through substance abuse support groups.

5. Learn More About Anxiety and Substance Abuse

Anxiety and addiction are often a package deal for people of all ages. It might seem like they’re both a permanent part of your life, but you can gain more control over both problems with a bit of help. Study your anxiety, pinpoint your triggers and seek professional assistance. You’ll soon learn to live with your anxious symptoms without relapsing into unhealthy behavioral patterns.

Anyone who has struggled with anxiety knows how completely and utterly debilitating it can be. Left unchecked, anxiety can spiral into depression, social isolation, and a host of other issues.

If you suffer from anxiety or know someone who does, you’ve probably read a lot about the link between anxiety and substance abuse. However, that doesn’t mean you have all the information you need to make informed decisions regarding your personal situation.

People who experience anxiety are more likely to develop a substance use disorder. The association works in both directions; people who use substances are more likely to also experience anxiety. Wrongly, the two conditions are often linked as cause and effect, with one causing the other. However, if you have anxiety, there’s no need to fear that it will lead you straight into a life of substance abuse.


People who struggle with anxiety often find themselves drawn to substances such as alcohol, cannabis, and benzodiazepine to try and ease their symptoms. While these drugs might help reduce short-term stress and fear, in the long term they tend to make things worse.

When you have an anxiety disorder, you’re likely to also develop a substance abuse problem. The link between anxiety and substance abuse is high because people who suffer from anxiety may turn to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism. In addition, many people who have anxiety disorders self-medicate with drugs or alcohol before getting diagnosed or treated for their anxiety. 


What is the correlation between substance abuse and anxiety disorders?

People suffering from anxiety have been proven to have a significantly higher risk of substance abuse including developing an addiction to alcohol and drugs normally associated with the signs and symptoms of the emotional mental disorder.

Is substance abuse a symptom of anxiety?

No, substance abuse is not a symptom of anxiety but individuals struggling with anxiety disorder symptoms have a significantly higher risk of substance abuse- addiction to alcohol and drugs. People with anxiety may self-medicate with drugs or alcohol.

How do drugs make anxiety worse?

Drugs can make anxiety worse (make you more restless and anxious) by:
-Interfering with the way the brain nerve cells send their messages through brain chemicals since most drugs are stimulants which rev the brain
-Increasing the effects of anxiety medication thus giving you intense side effects

How long does substance-induced anxiety last?

Substance-induced anxiety can last for long a long as the substance abuse continues. The substance-included anxiety can continue for up to six months and has rarely been reported for years, after stopping the abuse of alcohol, benzodiazepine, opioid, and occasionally antidepressant use. The other challenge is that ceasing the use of the substance can lead to withdrawal symptoms which can also cause anxiety. Therefore, it is important to manage anxiety with the help of medical personnel.


Dr. David Barlow

David is a well-known researcher and author in the anxiety disorders area with extensive research on their etiology, nature, and treatment. He started the site to share his real-life experiences on the management of anxiety disorders with successful diagnosis and treatment being his motivation to write or review the content on this site.