Stress and Relapse

Relapse is, sadly, part of the healing process for many people who have addictions. At one moment, they make a commitment to leading a life that’s free of any kind of intoxicating substance at all. But in the next moment, they seem overwhelmed by the urge to use, and they comply with that urge by returning to the substances they swore they wouldn’t ever touch again. While a relapse could take hold in response to almost any kind of outside trigger, it’s common for people to relapse to drugs due to stress. Understanding why that’s the case could be a key to lasting sobriety.

Priming the Brain

In an article about the link between stress and drug use, published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, researchers suggest that stress early in life can lead to changes in the brain that might make an addiction more likely. The neurobiology is technical and a little hard to explain, but in essence, researchers suggest that the hormones the brain secretes during a stressful episode leave a little kiss of damage behind. That damage can make the brain respond enthusiastically when drugs are applied, providing people with a form of relief from a life of stress that they’ve never experienced before.
This kind of research pairs nicely with theories regarding stress and self-soothing with drugs. The idea here is that people use drugs in response to stress simply because they want the pain in their minds to stop. It’s a form of medication for them, and the relief can be very real. But people who have a long history of pain and stress may experience an even more profound level of relief when they use drugs, and it’s that big boost of feeling that can keep them using and might make them get addicted.

Building on the Damage

While stress can make people start using drugs, it can also force people into a return to drugs, even when they no longer want to use the substances. In a study of the issue in the journal European Neuropsychopharmacology, researchers suggest that people who used drugs in order to medicate stress train the brain to call out for drugs when the next stressful event hits. It’s a solution that has worked for the brain in the past, so when the next stressful thing appears, it’s a solution the brain calls for again. These cravings come from deep inside the mind, far below conscious thought, and they can be incredibly difficult for people to control. When cravings like this hit, a relapse seems almost certain.

The danger of relapse is most profound when the stress is followed by contact with some reminder of drugs. This reminder could come in the form of:

  • A person who once sold drugs
  • A place in which the person took drugs
  • A photo or television depiction of drug use
  • Seeing someone using drugs


These additional reminders can put the brain into a cravings overdrive state, and the pressure a person might feel to relapse to drugs could be simply overwhelming.

Overcoming the Urge

While stress can certainly make people feel as though they must relapse, there’s a significant amount of work that can be done in treatment in order to keep the use from taking place. For example, in therapy sessions, experts might help their clients to identify the situations that seem to make them feel stressed, and they might teach them how to meditate, visualize or otherwise get away from the stressful thoughts without resorting to drugs. This kind of awareness can be incredibly powerful, and it could be just what some people need in order to recover.

Similarly, therapists can also help their clients to process their prior sources of stress, so they won’t always be dealing with old feelings and old concerns. Once people have the opportunity to put the past behind them and focus on the future, they might not be hobbled by feelings of nervousness and stress, and that might remove yet another pressure point that could lead to a relapse.

If you need this kind of help for yourself or for someone you care about, please contact us. We can put you in touch with Foundations Recovery Network programs that can provide you with the treatments you need to leave drugs behind, and the therapies that can boost your abstinence skills for life. Just call us, and our admissions coordinators can help you to find the program that’s just right for you and for your individual needs.

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