Coping with Stress in a Healthy, Drug-Free Way
Stress can wreak havoc on our lives and minds. When we feel extreme stress we may also feel as though we’d do anything to get rid of it. The way we choose to “get rid of,” or handle stress is up to us. There are both healthy and unhealthy ways to deal with stress. As Dr. Constance Scharff explains: “stress creates feelings that we sometimes deal with in maladaptive ways.” Maladaptive behaviors, or bad ways to deal with stress, can vary in severity. For example, if you feel stressed after a long work day you might want to indulge in some pizza or fast food. Some people, on the other hand, may decide to have a drink, or two, or three, and so on. Abusing drugs or alcohol is a common method used by lots of people to “unwind” or “decompress.” The problem with turning to substances to alleviate stress is that it can lead to physical and psychological addiction, which can do much more harm to the user than a bad day at work could ever do.
Understanding Addiction as a Neurological Disorder
Published in the scientific magazine, Neuron, a new study found that acute stress can lead to riskier behaviors. The researchers discovered this through studying rat brains following an experience of acute stress. Rats were provided with an alcohol-laced sugar water and the researchers sought to compare the difference in consumption between the rats who experienced stress and the rats of the control group that experienced no stress. Interestingly, the researchers found a positive relationship between the rats that experienced stress and a higher consumption of the sugar-water than their relaxed counterparts.
But why? It turns out that the stressed rats consumed more of the sugar water because their brains had been altered on a neurological level by the experience of stress. According to Dr. Scharff, “researchers found that specific neurons in the brain’s reward center that previously would have encouraged the rat to moderate their intake of methanol-laced sugar water were flipped, incentivizing the rat to drink as much as possible.” By drinking the water mixture the rats weren’t looking to meet a specific need, but rather were driven by a new neurological impulse. Their brains had begun to instruct them to engage in that activity, much like human brains might do the same when it comes to substance abuse.
Finding the Healthy Ways to Deal with Stress
Scientists are still trying to determine how this switch takes place and what exactly causes the formation of these neurological impulses. Evidence suggests that addiction, at its core, is a neurological disorder. In fact, these researchers theorize that the ability for certain neurons to flip on and off may be a biological trait which has evolved to help us cope with trauma. Dr. Scharff explains that “in light of these findings trauma, a high-intensity stress experience, can alter the brain’s chemistry to mistakenly encourage the abuse of substances like heroin and alcohol that dump large amounts of serotonin into the brain.”
This neurological basis for addiction makes sense per the various reasons why many individuals begin to use and abuse drugs and alcohol in the first place. High rates of substance abuse exist amongst those struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other severe anxiety disorders. This may be because the individuals struggling with these conditions feel as though alcohol or drugs are the only way to cope with their severe and painful symptoms. The brain, then, becomes wired to seek drugs and alcohol when feeling stressed or overwhelmed. And so the vicious cycle begins and continues.
Making the Right Choice, One Choice at a Time
Dr. Scharff and leading professionals advise that “the next time you’re in a stressful situation and find yourself reaching for a drink, consider another coping mechanism that can make you feel better or process what you’re going through.” This redirection, while perhaps difficult at first, can nevertheless be crucial in avoiding a lifetime of substance abuse and struggle with addiction. Luckily, there are several resources available to most individuals seeking help to control their drinking and drug-use cycles. When substance abuse becomes the only option for coping with stress, it may be time to seek treatment and lay the foundation for a better, healthier life.