Understanding the Link Between Drug Use and Anxiety

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It is a common misconception that recreational drugs always lead to a state of euphoria. However, many individuals find their drug experiences fraught with negative emotions – mood swings, restlessness, or even aggression can be common. After the initial high subsides, a worsening mood and intense feelings of anxiety often follow.

It is also known as substance-induced anxiety or medication-induced anxiety. It impacts not just those taking prescribed substances for medical reasons but also individuals who use legal or illegal drugs recreationally.

Let’s explore how drugs and medications can lead to anxiety symptoms and what steps can be taken to address this issue.

What is Substance-Induced Anxiety?

Anxiety disorders encompass a range of symptoms, including intense fear and worry, which can severely affect one’s social, personal, academic, and professional life. Substance-induced anxiety refers to anxiety symptoms that emerge shortly after using a substance, persist while under its influence, or appear during withdrawal.

It’s crucial to differentiate between substance-induced anxiety and anxiety that is independent of withdrawal and intoxication. While there is often a co-occurrence of substance use disorders (SUDs) and anxiety, they can exist independently of each other. 

Recognizing Drug-Induced Anxiety Symptoms

Symptoms of drug-induced anxiety can vary but typically include:

  • Difficulty concentrating and scattered thoughts.
  • A pervasive feeling of impending doom or disaster.
  • Restlessness may manifest as physical tics or an inability to sit still.
  • Feeling jittery or constantly on edge.
  • Physiological signs such as an accelerated heart rate, sweating, and palpitations.
  • Experiencing dizziness or a sensation of light-headedness.
  • Shortness of breath, chest tightness, or discomfort.
  • Nausea, upset stomach, or abdominal pain.

These symptoms can arise shortly after consuming a drug, last throughout the substance’s presence in your system, or occur predominantly during withdrawal.

Can Substance Abuse Cause Anxiety Disorders?

The relationship between SUD and anxiety disorders is complex. Generally, having one increases the likelihood of developing the other. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and panic disorder (PD) show particularly strong associations with SUDs.

Three main pathways illustrate how SUD and anxiety disorders might overlap:

  1. The Self-Medication Pathway: An existing anxiety disorder leads to an SUD.
  2. The Substance-Induced Anxiety Disorder Pathway: An SUD precipitates an anxiety disorder.
  3. The Third Variable Pathway: Other factors, like genetic predispositions, contribute to the co-occurrence.

In most cases, anxiety disorders precede SUD, suggesting that anxiety often leads to substance abuse, not the other way around. However, further research is needed, particularly regarding the third variable pathway.

Various substances, both legal and illegal, can induce or exacerbate anxiety symptoms. Here are some common substances known to cause or worsen anxiety:

  • Alcohol: While initial consumption may have a relaxing effect, chronic use or withdrawal can lead to increased anxiety levels.
  • Nicotine: Smoking or nicotine use can initially feel calming but increases tension and anxiety over time.
  • Marijuana: Some users experience relaxation, while others may have heightened anxiety or paranoia, especially with high THC levels.
  • Stimulants (Amphetamines, Cocaine, MDMA): Can cause significant anxiety, panic attacks, and paranoia during use and in withdrawal phases.
  • Hallucinogens: The use of hallucinogens can lead to anxiety and panic, particularly if the user has a bad trip or experiences disturbing hallucinations. 
  • Opioids: Misuse and withdrawal from opioids can result in increased anxiety and agitation.
  • Benzodiazepines: While they are used to treat anxiety, misuse or withdrawal from benzodiazepines can greatly exacerbate anxiety symptoms, leading to a severe rebound effect.

Treating Substance-Induced Anxiety

Treating substance-induced anxiety requires a multifaceted approach, including both pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy:

  • Medication Management: Drugs like Buspirone, Paroxetine, and Tiagabine have shown effectiveness in treating co-occurring anxiety and SUDs. For instance, Buspirone is beneficial for patients with alcohol dependency and high anxiety levels.
  • Psychotherapy: Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) helps individuals identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors. Other psychotherapies also used include Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and motivational interviewing. As well as group therapy sessions to provide a sense of community and shared experience, which can benefit recovery.
  • Lifestyle Modification: Practices like mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and deep breathing exercises can help manage anxiety symptoms. Other lifestyle changes such as regular exercise, a healthy diet, and avoiding stimulants can be helpful. 
  • Dual Diagnosis Treatment: For individuals with both a mental health condition (like anxiety) and a substance use disorder, dual diagnosis treatment programs that address both conditions simultaneously are often the most effective.

It’s important to note that the choice of treatment depends on various factors, including the type of substance used, the severity of the anxiety and SUD, and the individual’s overall health and personal circumstances. 

Overcoming Drug-Induced Anxiety

If you are experiencing anxiety due to medication or drug use, seeking help from a healthcare professional is crucial. A qualified mental health specialist can assist in identifying the root causes and provide effective strategies to manage and overcome these challenges.

Remember, you’re not alone in this journey. With the right support and treatment, overcoming drug-induced anxiety is achievable. Reach out today for the help you need.

Written by: Onyx Behavioral Health Admin

The Onyx Behavioral Health Editorial Team includes content experts that contribute to this online publication. Editors and mental health experts review our blogs carefully for accuracy and relevance. We reference authority organizations such as The National Institute of Mental Health and NAMI for the latest research, data, and news to provide our readers with the most up-to-date mental illness and recovery-related content.

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