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Concurrent Disorders: Anxiety and Addiction

By March 18, 2019 June 15th, 2023 No Comments
Trafalgar addiction treatment centres

There is a high correlation between anxiety disorder and substance abuse. Many people with anxiety disorder turn to addictive substances in order to cope with the symptoms of the condition.

This is a form of self-medication and a highly dangerous and addictive pattern of use. When a person is coping with a mental health condition such as anxiety disorder alongside addiction, the conditions are referred to as concurrent disorders.

Treatment for Concurrent Disorders

Treatment for anxiety disorder and addiction should be modelled around concurrent disorders. Evidence-based treatment for concurrent disorders will help to identify and address the issues underlying anxiety and addiction problems. It will also help them to develop healthy coping mechanisms to address challenges and symptoms.

Seeking Out Treatment

Many people coping with anxiety and co-occurring addiction do not seek treatment. This may occur for several reasons. These include the stigma around mental health and addiction issues, a lack of available services and the affected individual’s denial of their problems. People coping with anxiety may also find the notion of seeking treatment intimidating. However, evidence-based treatment can provide a person with anxiety and addiction problems the necessary foundation for lasting recovery and the tools for coping with their anxiety.

Evidence-Based Methods

Treatment should involve only methods that have proven effective in treating concurrent disorders. These methods should also be adaptable to the specific needs of the individual. Treatment methods such as individual therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy and group counselling have all proven effective in treating anxiety and addiction. This previous blog discusses some of the crucial factors to consider when choosing a treatment provider.

Underlying Causes

Anxiety disorder most often emerges early in life, but can develop at any age. The root causes of the condition are variable and often complex. In some cases, anxiety is based primarily in a specific traumatic event. In others, the causes are more complex and difficult to identify. Genetics and environmental factors can also make the development of anxiety disorder more likely. Evidence-based treatment methods such as individual therapy help to identify the underlying causes of anxiety and to develop methods for coping with them.

Increased Likelihood of Addiction

A person coping with anxiety disorder has a significantly increased likelihood of developing an addiction. If a person does not have healthy mechanisms for coping with anxiety and its underlying causes, they may develop a pattern of self-medicating to cope with them. This is a highly addictive habit. Alcohol, marijuana and prescription drugs are often used to self-medicate for anxiety. Evidence-based treatment helps people coping with anxiety disorder to develop healthy, progressive coping mechanisms instead of self-medicating.

Psychological Symptoms

Anxiety disorder can manifest in different ways for each person coping with it. It commonly causes persistent, intense feelings of fear or worry. These feelings can be so severe that they make it very difficult to handle responsibilities and to make it through the day. Anxiety disorder can interfere with a person’s appetite and sleep, leaving them physically and mentally fatigued and making it difficult to focus. Coping with anxiety disorder can also leave someone exhausted as it can make it impossible to properly relax and can be very overwhelming. It can also cause tremors, excessive sweating and feelings of physical tension or agitation.

Physical Symptoms

Anxiety disorder often involves physical symptoms. These may include increased heart rate, increased body temperature and increased blood pressure. During instances of intense anxiety, a person may also experience respiratory difficulties such as shortness of breath or difficulty breathing. Anxiety also often causes insomnia or reduced quality of sleep. Some people coping with anxiety also experience symptoms such as stomach pains and migraines.

Panic Attacks

In some cases, anxiety disorder can cause panic attacks. This will usually occur when someone has already been coping with anxiety and encounters a distressing situation. Panic attacks can occur very suddenly and usually last for around twenty or thirty minutes. They usually involve physical symptoms such as chest pain, heart palpitations, respiratory difficulties, stomach pain and excessive sweating. While panic attacks can be very severe and frightening experiences, they are not usually life-threatening. However, they do often require medical attention.


Many addictive substances, including alcohol, marijuana and opiates, are sedatives. They affect the activity of the central nervous system, creating a relaxing effect. Many addictive substances also produce a feeling of euphoria that reduces feelings of anxiety. Anxiety may also cause physical tension and discomfort, which may be alleviated by addictive substances. These effects mean that using addictive substances can appear an effective way of coping with anxiety. However, this kind of use quickly becomes a problem as it can lead to addiction and prevents the person from addressing the underlying causes of their anxiety.


The pattern of self-medicating for anxiety with substances is an extremely dangerous, addictive pattern. A person will quickly develop a dependence on substances to cope with their anxiety in the absence of healthy coping mechanisms. Even before the point of addiction, self-medication for anxiety will create a range of problems.

Anxiety disorder is a deep and complex condition that usually necessitates evidence-based treatment and healthy coping mechanisms. Suppressing anxiety by using addictive substances will not treat the underlying causes of the issue- it will likely make them more severe.

Worsening the Underlying Causes

Addictive substances will ultimately make many common causes of anxiety worse. They will prevent the user from proactively addressing the problem. Addictive behaviour is also likely to create conflict in relationships, one of the most common causes of anxiety. Someone coping with anxiety through self-medication is less likely to proactively address conflict.

Addictive behaviour also negatively affects focus and physical wellbeing, which will cause further anxiety. It can damage a person’s professional standing, making them less able to complete tasks and meet responsibilities at work. It can make a person isolated or damage their self-esteem, which will often lead to increased anxiety. Addiction also often creates financial pressures, another common cause of anxiety. Someone self-medicating will also likely ignore or suppress physical and psychological symptoms of anxiety, allowing them to become more severe.


Anxiety disorder is also sometimes linked with impulsivity, meaning someone coping with the disorder may find it more difficult to resist urges to use addictive substances. It also makes relapse more likely for people in recovery coping with anxiety disorder. Treatment must address this issue by providing the client with healthy, progressive coping mechanisms.

Gradual Progression

Many people begin using addictive substances to cope with anxiety in social situations or to unwind after work, for example. While this can initially seem harmless, over time a person may form a dependence, requiring substances in order to relax or feel comfortable. Their tolerance for the substances they are using will also increase, meaning they will need to use more in order to achieve the desired effect. This increases the likelihood of addiction.

Brain Chemistry

In the kind of pattern described above, the person coping with anxiety is training their brain to expect substances in order to achieve a state of calm. Addictive substances such as alcohol or marijuana temporarily increase the levels of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin in the brain. These neurotransmitters are partially responsible for the feelings of relaxation and euphoria elicited by these substances. After the initial effects of the substances have worn off, the brain’s supply of these neurotransmitters will be depleted. This can cause feelings of anxiety, depression and agitation.

Delaying After-Effects

People often continue using substances in order to delay the kinds of after effects discussed above. This is a highly addictive pattern. The after-effects of using addictive substances are also likely to increase the symptoms of anxiety that the user was initially trying to reduce. As discussed above, the symptoms and consequences of addictive behaviour are also very likely to cause increased anxiety.

Co-Occurring Mental Health Conditions

If someone is dealing with any other mental health disorders alongside anxiety, the symptoms of these disorders will also likely increase due to substance use. For example, if someone is coping with depression alongside anxiety, their symptoms are likely to become more severe if they develop an addiction. Many addictive substances, such as alcohol, are depressants. Addiction also creates more problems, such as conflict in relationships, financial pressures and lowered self-esteem, which can contribute to depression or other mental health disorders. Rather than self-medicating, people coping with mental health disorders should seek evidence-based treatment and work on developing healthy coping mechanisms.

Common Traits of Anxiety Disorder

Anxiety disorder can manifest in many different ways. However, there are certain traits that are commonly associated with the condition. Anxiety disorder is sometimes based on a specific traumatic event or situation. Certain cues can trigger this trauma and lead to intense anxiety or panic attacks.

Need for Control

Many people coping with anxiety disorder feel a need for control in certain situations. If they do not feel that they have a certain level of control, their anxiety will build. If they become focused on an event that has already occurred, or one that may occur in the future, they may become anxious due to their lack of control over these situations. Evidence-based treatment can help people coping with anxiety disorder to become more comfortable with situations as they are.

Unrealistic Standards

Some people coping with anxiety disorder struggle with unrealistic standards, for themselves, for other people and for situations. When these standards are not met, they become intensely anxious. Treatment methods such as individual therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy can help a person coping with anxiety disorder to set realistic standards and accept that when these are not met, it is not necessarily as serious an issue as it might seem. They will also help the person to proactively work to improve situations, rather than becoming anxious and unable to cope with them.

Need for Approval

One of the most common symptoms of anxiety disorder is a need to feel the approval of or be on positive terms with others. While many people feel this to some extent, for people with anxiety disorder, the need can become very pronounced. Minor disagreements with a friend or family member, or small problems with a project at work, can feel overwhelming and upsetting. Unfortunately, these kinds of situations will inevitably occur. Some people coping with anxiety disorder turn to addictive substances in order to cope with them. However, this prevents them from confronting the issues and is likely to lead to addiction. Treatment will help someone with anxiety disorder adapt the way they process situations, thoughts and emotions to help them cope with the problems at hand without becoming intensely anxious.

Worst-Case Scenarios

Anxiety disorder can cause a person to focus intensely on worst-case scenarios. It can become very difficult to maintain a sense of proportion when there is a very small probability of a particular negative outcome. An ordinary development or a slightly negative one can seem like a move towards the worst possible outcome. This mode of thinking causes frequent, intense anxiety. Many people coping with anxiety disorder turn to addictive substances in order to alleviate their fears. However, treatment methods such as cognitive behavioural therapy can help someone to retrain their thinking and emotional processing so that they will not become overly focused on potential negative outcomes.

Our next blog will focus on treatment and coping mechanisms for co-occurring anxiety and addiction. If you have any questions about treatment for anxiety disorder and addiction, contact Trafalgar Addiction Treatment Centres for more information.

Trafalgar Addiction Treatment Centres

Trafalgar Addiction Treatment Centres

We offer residential and outpatient rehab treatment programs for addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders.

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