The Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates that 20 percent of individuals diagnosed with an anxiety disorder also have a substance abuse disorder. Financial difficulties, health troubles, legal problems and relationship conflicts all associated with substance abuse can cause a person’s anxiety to escalate. Because the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder may resemble the side effects of alcoholism or drug addiction, it may be hard to tell where one disorder ends and another begins.

Drug Abuse as a Hindrance to Generalized Anxiety Disorder Treatment

It is possible for generalized anxiety disorder to go undiagnosed because alcohol and drugs can mask the symptoms. It isn’t uncommon for an individual to not know they have anxiety if they use drugs or alcohol whenever they feel stressed or high strung. For example, if someone drinks on a regular basis to relax, they might not recognize their tension as a symptom of a serious psychiatric condition. Once they find out they have a treatable mental health disorder, this could be a tremendous relief for someone who has been living a stressful life.

Regular substance use is often an attempt to self-treat to escape the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder. For a successful recovery, treatment for substance abuse needs to be prioritized before co-occurring disorders can be addressed.

Effects of Substance Abuse on Generalized Anxiety Disorder Symptoms

Substance abuse has a large impact on the psychological symptoms of anxiety. When someone uses a substance for a while, their body may develop a tolerance to the alcohol or drugs, meaning they may need to increase their intake to achieve the same effect as before. This process may ignite a cycle of substance use that can be difficult to extinguish without professional treatment.

Most individuals with substance use and anxiety disorders experience them independently, but having both can be brutal to one’s mental health. The symptoms of one can make the symptoms of the other worse, and the cycle may continue until successful treatment is sought out.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Alcohol

With both alcohol use and anxiety being so prevalent, it’s no surprise that the two may link together.

When having to deal with stressful days or unnerving situations, it may be tempting to have a glass of wine or a beer to calm the nerves. However, drinking alcohol, especially in large quantities and over a long period, can increase your anxiety. Drinking alcohol can have serious consequences if someone is using it to treat generalized anxiety disorder because of its ability to cause anxiety.

An occasional drink to unwind isn’t necessarily dangerous, though once you start drinking, you can build a tolerance to the relaxing effects of alcohol. This behavior can make a person drink heavily which can make the stress even harder to cope with. According to the SAMHSA, prolonged drinking may cause anxiety in some instances.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Marijuana

Marijuana use is strongly associated with generalized anxiety disorder. As the individual is commonly anxious or worried about circumstances in their life, such as relationships, they may look to marijuana to help them calm their mind. Marijuana may allow the individual to temporarily relax after a stressful day or during a nervous situation.

However, because this is only a temporary feeling of de-stressing, when the high is gone, the anxiety symptoms often return. Because marijuana may make a person feel normal, the person may begin to use marijuana more frequently until it becomes a daily routine. The lack of peace when sober can cause people to use the drug at times that may affect their school, job and relationships. The diminishing high from repeated use could also lead to using stronger, likely more addictive, substances to feel calm for longer periods.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Stimulants

Anxiety is a well-known side effect of stimulant medications. Many children develop an anxiety disorder after taking prescribed stimulants to control their ADHD. Stimulants are chemicals that excite the central nervous system to release more chemicals to send faster messages through the nerves and body.

Stimulants are not commonly prescribed to treat anxiety. College students with high anxiety may take stimulants to help them stay up late studying or to stay awake and alert during class or at work. This use may become addicting and lead to a dependence on the drug to function normally, without withdrawal. This habit may create more stress by stimulating anxiety symptoms, creating a devastating cycle of stress.

Statistics on Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Drug Abuse

Anxiety disorders occur in 18 to 28 percent of the general U.S. population. Within this percentage of individuals with an anxiety disorder, there is a 33 to 45 percent occurrence rate for a co-existing substance use disorder to be present as well.

Alcohol is one of the most common drugs consumed in the United States. A survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in 2012 showed that about 65 percent of people over the age of 12 reported drinking alcohol in the past year. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) states that 20 percent of people dealing with general anxiety disorder also suffer from some form of alcohol abuse or dependence.

Drug Abuse as a Cause of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Individuals struggling with generalized anxiety disorder are significantly more likely to develop an addiction to drugs or alcohol than people who do not have anxiety. As unwanted symptoms progress, these individuals may turn to substances as a way to self-medicate and relax, putting the taxing symptoms on hold for a short time. People may use alcohol and drugs as an outlet to escape the reality of anxiety and produce a sense of happiness.

However, when someone becomes dependent on alcohol or drugs, they may experience severe anxiety when they are sober. This uncomfortable situation can lead an individual without prior anxiety to accumulate drug-induced or withdrawal-related anxiety symptoms. The continued substance abuse can lead to worsened anxiety and may also change the electrical connections in the brain. It is possible for an individual to obtain generalized anxiety disorder due to drug abuse.

If you suffer from an anxiety disorder that is co-occurring with a substance used disorder, The Recovery Village can help. Individuals who have a substance use disorder and symptoms of a generalized anxiety disorder can receive help from one of The Recovery Village’s facilities located throughout the country. Call The Recovery Village to speak with a representative and get started with treatment today.

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.