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Studies have shown that nearly 20% of adults in the United States have experienced an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. Additionally, research indicates that anxiety disorders and substance use disorders (SUDs) co-occur at a higher rate than is likely due to chance alone. Due to these startling statistics, some people diagnosed with an anxiety disorder may fear that they’re more susceptible to developing SUD. While researchers have confirmed an undeniable link between anxiety and SUDs, whether one initiates the other is still up for debate. 

Anxiety and Substance Use

Research indicates that about 20% of adults who have an anxiety disorder also have a co-occurring SUD and vice versa. While most people experience these two disorders separately, pairing them together can create a cycle that’s difficult to break. 

Sometimes, people will consume substances in an attempt to self-medicate their anxiety. This is because substance use can produce abnormal surges of dopamine in the brain, which many perceive as euphoric. However, those feelings are only temporary and tend to be followed by feelings of depression and even more intense symptoms of anxiety. As a result, individuals experience worsening anxiety symptoms as well as the quick development of SUD.

Before understanding the complicated link between these disorders, it’s important to understand them both on their own terms. 

Anxiety Disorders

Small amounts of anxiety are normal and part of the human experience. When anxiety becomes chronic and inescapable, that may be indicative of an anxiety disorder. There are a wide variety of anxiety disorders that people may struggle with in their lifetime. All anxiety disorders, however, share intense feelings of panic or restlessness that often interfere with day-to-day activities. They can affect interpersonal relationships, job performance, school work, self-care activities, and more. 

While there are a variety of anxiety disorders, the most common among adults in the United States is generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). 

Common symptoms of GAD include:

  • Ongoing feelings of restlessness or unease
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Behaving irritably
  • Chronic headaches or stomachaches
  • Inability to control feelings of worry
  • Sleep difficulties

Substance Use Disorders

SUDs occur when a person is no longer able to control their use of substances, including alcohol, prescription medication, or illicit drugs. SUDs can range in severity, with “addiction” referring to the most severe form of SUD. There is no one definite cause of SUD. Rather, SUD develops from a combination of factors, including:

  • Genetics
  • Sociocultural pressures
  • Co-occurring mental health conditions
  • Environmental factors

Often, SUDs develop unintentionally from the use of alcohol and other drugs in moderation. It is important to understand that substance use – even in moderation – can increase an individual’s risk of developing SUD. Likewise, there is no “safe” level of drug use that can protect someone from developing SUD.


Comorbidity refers to the presence of two mental health disorders at once. An example of this is the presence of an anxiety disorder and SUD. Just because two disorders are present, however, doesn’t mean that one necessarily caused the other. Research indicates that anxiety and depression make people more susceptible to the development of SUD, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that having an anxiety disorder means you will develop SUD.

In some cases, however, people may develop SUD as a direct response to trying to cope with the symptoms of their preexisting disorder. As mentioned previously, individuals may turn to alcohol and other drugs to self-medicate their symptoms or increase their socialization. However, this can quickly lead to chemical dependency as well as the development of addiction. To effectively heal from comorbid anxiety disorders and SUD, professional treatment is required.

Handling Anxiety

It should seem obvious at this point that having an anxiety disorder doesn’t necessarily mean you will develop SUD. However, mishandling your anxiety by using substances could lead to the development of one. That’s why it’s important to understand healthy and productive ways of handling anxiety so that substances do not become your primary method of coping. 

Anxiety disorders, unfortunately, are serious conditions that you won’t be able to fix with a simple self-help guide. The best method for treating anxiety disorders is to seek the help of a professional who can help guide you through the process of overcoming your anxiety. If certain factors are present, they may also choose to prescribe medication that can help you manage your symptoms. 

In addition to therapy, there are some general things that doctors recommend to help handle everyday anxiety:

  • Exercising daily
  • Maintaining a strict and healthy sleep schedule
  • Talking to trusted friends and family members
  • Practicing breathing exercises
  • Meditating
  • Staying hydrated
  • Maintaining a balanced diet

If you find that these manners of coping with anxiety aren’t helping your symptoms or that your anxiety is interfering with your daily activities, it’s important to seek treatment. Talking to a professional about your experiences can help you to formulate ways to handle your anxiety that work for you and actively prevent the development of SUD. 

Anxiety disorders are complicated and often very difficult to manage. Due to overbearing symptoms of anxiety, some people turn to substances to find temporary relief. This often leads to the development of substance use disorders, which creates an entirely separate issue that will only make all aspects of life more challenging. That’s why it’s essential that those dealing with an anxiety disorder seek help through proper channels like therapy. If you believe you have an anxiety disorder, a substance use disorder, or both, help is available. At West Coast Recovery Centers, we believe in a holistic approach to treatment that incorporates treatments for both disorders. For more information, call our professionals today at (760) 492-6509.