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Stress and Substance Abuse Related to Thousands of Fatalities Annually

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  • Stress and Substance Abuse Related to Thousands of Fatalities Annually

Fatalities caused by substance abuse now exceed 500,000 deaths per year, which equals out to one out of every four deaths. According to the University of Utah School of Medicine, statistics on drug-related deaths involve a wide spectrum of crimes and tragedies.

Drug-related incidents account for -

  • 52 percent of murders
  • 50 percent of traffic-related deaths
  • 70 percent of teenage suicides
  • 68 percent of manslaughter incidents
  • 45 percent of rapes

Considering the degree of violence associated with drug-related death, stress likely plays a role in one way or another.

Stress and substance abuse tend to go hand-in-hand with one feeding into the other. Likewise, the effects of stress on the brain bear a striking resemblance to the effects of substance abuse on brain functions. When left unchecked, a lifestyle of stress can quickly evolve into a lifestyle of substance abuse under the right circumstances. Ultimately, the accumulated effects of stress can leave a person susceptible to drug using behaviors long after any one stressor or trauma has passed.

Stress Factors

Stress can take any number of different forms, some of which include -

  • Relationship conflicts
  • The death of a loved one
  • Financial difficulties
  • Insufficient sleep
  • Hunger
  • A dysfunctional living environment

Likewise, the effects of stress can stem from both past and present-day circumstances, such as an abuse-ridden past versus being out of work.

Stressful states alter a person's mindset and physiological state, triggering chemical responses throughout the body. Once stress takes hold, regaining a sense of stability becomes the overall goal.

At this point, a person's coping skills come into play in terms of how he or she will attempt to manage stressful times. Without a set of healthy coping skills to draw from, the "highs" brought on by substance abuse can quickly produce that much-needed feeling of stability and control.

Stress Effects on the Brain

According to the U. S. National Library of Medicine, research conducted on the relationship between stress and substance abuse uncovered certain physiological predictors of drug use based on the degree of stress a person experiences. These predictors derive from actual brain chemical activities that take place in response to stressful stimuli.

Ongoing or chronic states of stress trigger the release of neurotransmitter chemicals, such as GABA, dopamine and glutamate. Since neurotransmitter chemical activities regulate emotions, learning and bodily functions on an ongoing basis, unusually high levels of these chemicals can essentially "rewire" the way the brain works. Over time, these conditions can make a person more susceptible to drug abuse and addiction.

The Effects of Past Traumas

The effects past or childhood traumas on a person's overall emotional affect or state have shown down to have a direct bearing on the likelihood of substance abuse behaviors in adulthood. According to Case Western University, an estimated 62 to 81 percent of women in drug treatment experienced traumatic upbringings involving some form of childhood abuse and neglect. When past traumas are left unresolved, brain chemical activities remain in a state of hyper-arousal, much like the conditions brought on by stress.

With today's fast-paced lifestyle, stress can quickly become the "norm" within one's day-to-day affairs. Whether or not a person veers towards substance abuse depends on his or her ability to engage in healthy coping behaviors along the way.

For those who lack healthy coping skills, drug and alcohol abuse offer an easy out for dealing with life's daily pressures. Ultimately, the resulting effects of ongoing stress set the stage for long-term emotional instability, which only works to increase the likelihood of developing a substance abuse problem.

Substance Abuse as a Coping Strategy

People brought up in dysfunctional home environments develop the types of coping strategies that prevailed within the context of everyday life. Ongoing emotional conflicts coupled with abandonment and neglect issues during childhood can leave the full-grown adult lacking when it comes to handling daily life stressors and pressures in a healthy, productive manner.

Drugs and alcohol can do a good job at taking the edge off during a stressful time. In cases where a person has little to no experience in coping with problems in a productive way, the effects of drugs or alcohol can easily fill the void.

According to the Medical University of South Carolina, rape victims have a higher risk of developing substance abuse problems than non-victims when no attempt is made to process or work through the experience. On average, rape victims are -

  • 13 times more likely to develop and alcohol abuse problem
  • 26 times more likely to develop a drug abuse problem

Under these conditions, drug use can become a primary coping strategy that works to provide relief and escape from uncomfortable emotions, situations and circumstances.

The Reinforcing Effects of Substance Abuse

As drug abuse affects many of the same brain chemical processes as stress, someone who turns to drugs as a means for relieving stress is essentially reinforcing the effects of stress and the likelihood of continued drug use. This reinforcing effect results from how drugs and stress both interfere with the brain's reward system.

The brain's reward system plays a pivotal role in learning processes in terms of what motivates a person's behaviors throughout the day. The effects of drugs skew the brain's reward system to the point where drugs become a primary motivation in a person's life. When drugs are used as a means for coping with stress, the "benefits" of drug use have an even greater influence on how the brain's reward system works.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Substance Abuse

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects people who've experienced a life-threatening event, such as -

  • Natural disasters
  • Military combat
  • A violent assault
  • A serious accident

On average 7.8 percent of the U. S. population has experienced PTSD at some point in their lifetimes.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, people affected by PTSD have a high risk of developing substance abuse and addiction problems. PTSD leaves a person in a state of hyper-arousal or high stress, making it difficult to sleep soundly, think clearly or connect with self and others in meaningful ways.

Ultimately, the effects of stress can upend a person's life in much the same way as drug addiction. When left untreated, the effects of stress and drug abuse become a self-perpetuating cycle of chaos and destruction.


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