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Stress-related addictions and behavioural troubles

    Chronic stress and anxiety are often responsible for mood-related, emotional and behavioural problems.

The neuromodulatory changes that occur during intense stress, anxiety or other overwhelming feelings rapidly disrupt prefrontal cortex (PFC) network connections and impair PFC function. Thus, intense emotions don't just affect the way we feel, they can also have a significant impact on our daily behaviours, including our ability to make sound decisions.

However, it is good to know that stress and anxiety are not normative concepts, nor are they diseases in themselves. Although your stress and anxiety are not imaginary, there is no laboratory test available to confirm or measure them. Yet you feel them, and therefore you are best positioned to assess whether or not you feel stressed or anxious.

Since the nervous system modulates the physiological functions, and the brain takes into account the emotional state in all that it does, the strong emotions always end up having an impact on the mood, behavior and on the etiopathogenesis of all kinds of negative and addictive behavioral issues.

Emotions are not just mental states and emotional feelings. Today's view of emotions is that emotions are experienced at four different, but closely interrelated levels: the mental or psychological level (the brain), the physiological level (the chemistry of your body), the somatic level (bodily emotional feelings), and the behavioral level. These complementary aspects are present in all human emotions, even in the most basic ones like stress, fear and anxiety.

The scientific study of emotion and of the bodily changes that accompany diverse emotional experience, known as psychosomatic medicine, marks a relatively new era in medicine. The central concept of psychosomatic medicine is the scientific fact that mind and body are integral aspects of all human function. The term ‘psychosomatic disorder’ is used for a physical disease that is thought to be triggered, made worse or caused by emotional factors. To an extent, most diseases are considered psychosomatic, as there is an emotional aspect to every physical disease.

The most well-known negative behaviours related to lasting stress, anxiety and other overwhelming emotions include: addictive behaviour, insomnia, fear of being in public, fear of losing control, of being overwhelmed, of making mistakes, panic attacks, fear that you are losing your mind, that you are passing out, going crazy or are dying, as well as avoiding eye contact and acquiring various bad habits such as nails biting, teeth squeaking, jaw clenching, hasty specking, chewing pens and feet tapping.

Stress and anxiety induced adrenaline release prepares the body to face life's extreme challenges by redirecting blood flow and causing a cascade of changes to how the brain works. Intense stress and anxiety have a selective effect and specifically target the neuronal activity that supports decision making. Excessive stimulation of dopaminergic and noradrenergic receptors induced by high stress and anxiety may selectively impair or disengage a particular neuronal area of the prefrontal cortex involved in smart decision making and short-term memory. 

First, stress and anxiety leads to bad decisions. Then, dealing with the bad decisions made under anxiety overwhelms and numbs the entire prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex plays a pivotal role in executive functions that include: long-term planning, higher-order thinking, understanding rules, calculating the consequences of risk and reward, regulating emotions, problem solving, and decision-making based on relevant rules.

This is how a stress and anxiety overload can lead people to substance abuse and, ultimately, addiction. According to various authors, stress and anxiety are the main driving force behind addictive behaviour. Individuals with compulsive disorders including alcoholism, gambling, overeating, or smoking, often increase negative behaviour, or undergo a relapse, after they have been through a stressful time period.

As you already know, rather than passively observing what happens to you, your subconscious mind is actually in charge of the proper functioning of your conscious mind and your body through the regulatory mechanisms of your autonomous nervous system. When you feel relaxed and safe, the sympathetic branch of the autonomous nervous system kicks in and your body is nourished, healed and energy is restored. Whenever you are facing a threat, the parasympathetic branch of the autonomous nervous system kicks in and the stress response will mobilize all your resources for your survival inbuilt fight or flight response.

While you are in the middle of a stress response, the stress response will mobilize all your resources for your survival, and your body's nourishing, restorative, maintenance and self-repair functions come to a screeching halt. Unfortunately, when the threat is imaginary, the subconscious mind doesn't realize that there is no real threat. Over time, when this stress response is repetitively triggered by imaginary threats, nature's biological response ends up doing more harm than good.

Long term, if your body is not properly nourished, restored, maintained and repaired, the effects of chronic wear and tear on your body takes its toll and you will end up mentally and physically sick. Therefore, by releasing  stress and anxiety, your body creates a loop of positive feedback through the  autonomic nervous system, feedback that can rebalance your sympathetic and parasympathetic branches and lead so to significant improvement in symptoms of your stress and anxiety related addictions and behavioural troubles. The degree of improvement you can reasonably expect by relieving your persistent stress and anxiety depends on how much you feel that your emotional state affects your health issues.

When dealing with a fractured bone, the standard medical approach is to align and immobilize the bone and let it heal, because this ancestral approach works on all bones. However, when dealing with stress and anxiety, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach. Therefore the psychiatry, psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, neuro-linguistic-programming, emotional freedom tapping, pet therapy, art-therapy, mindfulness, yoga, craniosacral therapy, gravity blanket, mini-horses therapy and many other approaches based on very contradictory and yet scientific concepts, are all available to solve emotional issues.

Chronic, intense or repetitive stress and anxiety can lead to various emotional troubles and even psychiatric or physical medical conditions. According to the American Psychosomatic Society “… there is no such thing as psychosomatic disease. All disease can be looked at from this point of view”.

The following behavioral troubles may be aggravated, triggered or even caused by anxiety and stress, or may be conditions for which you may be at increased risk if you are exposed to prolonged or intense anxiety and stress.

Anxiety Could Be The Reason You Made A Bad Decision:  "Anxiety doesn’t just affect the way we feel — it can also have a significant impact on our daily behaviors, including our ability to make sound decisions.  A new study from neuroscientists at the University of Pittsburgh finds that anxiety disengages the prefrontal cortex, a brain region that’s critical for flexible decision-making, as well as attention and higher-order thinking.  “Anxiety is a mental health issue that affects our day-to-day life, including our decision-making,” Dr. Bita Moghaddam, a neuroscientist at the university and the study’s lead author, told The Huffington Post in an email. “By understanding the biological processes that make this happen, we can hopefully come up with better ways of treating this aspect of anxiety.”

Stress leads to bad decisions: “Study shows how mental strain impairs the brain and makes us forget what really matters to us. Researchers have identified how stress affects a part of the brain that controls decision-making. They found that stress could cause a sort of confusion between good and bad choices. Chronic stress can cause you to make risky decisions like picking a job with a good salary but strenuous hours, say scientists. The study showed that stress leads to a sort of mental confusion between choices that will or won't be rewarding, and can last for months.”

Extreme stress during childhood can hurt social learning for years to come. Previous research on the consequences of early life stress and child maltreatment shows that these children will be more likely to develop a multitude of social and mental health problems. Teens and adults who experienced early adversity such as abuse, neglect or extreme deprivation are more likely to be socially isolated, spend time in jail, and develop psychological disorders including anxiety and depression. Psychologists know that early life stress affects people’s ability to control or regulate their emotions and the brain regions that support these skills. For example, children who have experienced a lot of stress seem to have more difficulty containing negative emotions like anger or anxiety.”

Addictive Behavior  "There is a substantial literature on the significant association between acute and chronic stress and the motivation to abuse addictive substances. Many of the major theories of addiction also identify an important role of stress in addiction processes. These range from psychological models of addiction that view drug use and abuse as a coping strategy to deal with stress, to reduce tension, to self medicate, and to decrease withdrawal-related distress, to neurobiological models that propose incentive sensitization and stress allostasis concepts to explain how neuroadaptations in reward, learning, and stress pathways may enhance craving, loss of control, and compulsion, the key components in the transition from casual use of substances to the inability to stop chronic use despite adverse consequences, a key feature of addiction."

Chronic Stress and Vulnerability to Addiction: "Stress is a well-known risk factor in the development of addiction and in addiction relapse vulnerability. There is considerable evidence from population-based and clinical studies supporting a positive association between psychosocial adversity, negative affect, and chronic distress and addiction vulnerability. The findings indicate that the cumulative number of stressful events was significantly predictive of alcohol and drug dependence. The last decade has led to a dramatic increase in understanding the underlying mechanisms for this association. Behavioral and neurobiological correlates are being identified, and some evidence of molecular and cellular changes associated with chronic stress and addiction has been identified."

Social Anxiety & Substance Abuse: “Social anxiety, also referred to as social phobia, is the intense fear of interacting with other people that makes you feel self-conscious and that you’re being negatively evaluated and judged. These fears are both unreasonable and excessive, and they result in you experiencing physical symptoms and changes in behavior. If you suffer from social anxiety, you’re at a high risk of becoming dependent on drugs or alcohol as a tool to boost your confidence and help you relax in social situations. You may believe self-medicating is helping you. However, in time, you might become reliant on your drug of choice — which leads to more challenges.”

Alcohol & Stress: At Risk for Alcoholism: "Research and population surveys have shown that persons under stress, particularly chronic stress, tend to exhibit more unhealthy behaviors than less-stressed persons. Stressed people drink more alcohol, smoke more, and eat less nutritious foods than non-stressed individuals. Many people report drinking alcohol in response to various types of stress, and the amount of drinking in response to stress is related to the severity of the life stressors and the individuals' lack of social support networks."

Nicotine dependence and psychological distress: "Scientists analyzed data from 172,938 adult respondents and observed that smokers and those attempting to quit had higher levels of psychological distress when compared to those who never smoked. The rate of smoking increased with psychological distress (from 17.7% to 41.9%) and subjects with high levels of psychological distress were more likely to be current smokers. Psychological distress is a nonspecific dimension which refers both to symptoms and also to normal emotional responses to adversity. It encompasses sadness, frustration, anxiety, and a number of other negative mood states, such as hopelessness, nervousness, and depressive mood. However, nicotine dependence and the psychological distress experienced while quitting are widely recognized as particularly relevant predictors of smoking cessation."

Teenage stress and Anxiety Give Rise to Drug Abuse : "Apart from peer pressure, stress and anxiety are some of the leading causes of drug abuse among high school and college students. If you are a student, you are under pressure to complete assignments and take exams regularly to gauge your performance ability and talents. School life can at times be unhappy or you are getting too much pressure from your parents, friends or sponsors to enhance your grades or scores. Due to stress and anxiety caused by the quest to score better grades, college students are turning to alcoholism, illegal drugs, such as cocaine, morphine and pot or prescribed medications. Many students turn to drugs as a way to escape from unhappy reality."

Bipolar disorder:Bipolar disorder is a condition that features extreme shifts in mood and fluctuations in energy and activity levels that can make day-to-day living difficult. Previously known as manic depression, it is a serious mental illness that, if left untreated, can destroy relationships, undermine career prospects, and seriously affect academic performance. In some cases, it can lead to suicide. Abuse, mental stress, a "significant loss," or some other traumatic event may contribute to or trigger bipolar disorder.”

Top Reasons Why Teens Abuse Substances: A recent study by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America showed that 73 percent of teens report the number-one reason for using drugs is to deal with the pressures and stress of school. Surprisingly, only 7 percent of parents believe that teens might use drugs to cope with stress, showing parents severely underestimate the impact of stress on their teens’ decision to use illegal drugs.

Behavioral mechanisms underlying the link between smoking and drinking: "One factor common to the use of nicotine and alcohol is the influence of stress. The Influence of Stress may be involved both in the initial use of these drugs by adolescents and in the continued drug use during dependence. Traumatic life events and chronic stressful experiences are associated with the development of both alcohol and nicotine dependence. Stress has also been reported to precipitate relapse drug taking and may affect conditioning. Further-more, stress has been shown to reinstate operant responding (craving) for alcohol and nicotine after such behavior had been extinguished by cessation of the drug."

The link between stress and bipolar disorder:  “Stress has such an impact on our minds, bodies, and spirits that it exacerbates mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder. Stress is a significant trigger for episodes of bipolar disorder. Obviously, people who don't have bipolar disorder get irritable, impatient, and short-tempered when faced with chronic stress, but for people with bipolar disorder, uncontrolled stress can lead to dangerous manic or depressive symptoms.”

Teeth Grinding (Bruxism) "Bruxism is the technical term for grinding teeth and/or clenching jaws. It can be caused by sleep disorders, an abnormal bite or teeth that are missing or crooked, or it could be caused by stress and anxiety. Have you ever caught yourself clenching your teeth when concentrating on a dramatic part of a movie or when you are in a rush and waiting in a really long line? Nervous tension, anger, frustration — all of these can cause people to start showing the signs of bruxism."

Depression "Here’s something so that you start taking stress more seriously. People who suffer from chronic stress and anxiety may be at an increased risk for developing depression and even dementia, says a new study suggests. Experiencing anxiety, fear and stress is considered a normal part of life when it is occasional and temporary, such as feeling anxious and stressed before an exam or a job interview. However, when those acute emotional reactions become more frequent or chronic, they can significantly interfere with daily living activities such as work, school and relationships, according to researchers at Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Health Sciences in Canada."

Sleep Disorders "Insomnia has many potential causes, including psychological disorders such as stress, anxiety and bipolar disorder, and health conditions such as arthritis, overactive thyroid glands, gastrointestinal disorders, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome. In addition, taking certain medications, consuming caffeine, jet lag, sleep pattern disturbances, excessive day-sleeping, and physical or intellectual stimulation before bed may cause insomnia."

Stress hormone has major effect on perception and perceptual learning “When we train them, we can sharpen our senses thereby improve our perceptual performance. The stress hormone cortisol completely blocks this important ability. "Previous research has already shown that stress can prevent the retrieval of memories. But now we have discovered that it also has a major effect on our perception and perceptual learning," explains Dr Hubert Dinse, one of the authors of the study.”

Stress Can Affect Learning and Memory: Short-term stress lasting as little as a few hours can impair brain-cell communication in areas associated with learning and memory, researchers have found. It has been known that severe stress lasting weeks or months can impair cell communication in the brain's learning and memory region, but this study provides the first evidence that short-term stress has the same effect.

Nails Bitting "Nails are not immune to showing outward signs of stress, and some people develop the nervous habit of biting their nails or picking at them when they feel stressed. Another stress-related nail habit that Dr. Mayoral discussed is people who rub their fingers over their thumb nail, which can create a ridge across the nail."

Stuttering "It is becoming clearer that a fluency disorder like stuttering, if it persists past the teenage years, is associated with higher levels of social anxiety. This is especially the case if their stuttering is severe enough to warrant therapy. It is also especially true for women. It is important that we should not be surprised that stuttering can cause distress serious enough to create social fears and anxieties. People who stutter should also be more willing to seek additional help that can offer professional guidance in helping them to control their anxiety. The future is in their hands."

Speech-Language Pathology/Stuttering/Stress-Related Changes: “Under stress, people's voices change. They tense their speech-production muscles, increasing their vocal pitch. They try to talk faster. They repeat words or phrases. The "conventional wisdom" is that stutterers are always nervous or stressed out. Many psychological studies have proven that this isn't true. But stress has an important role in stuttering. All stutterers can talk fluently. In relaxed, low-stress situations we can say any sound or word fluently. If you're a severe stutterer, there might not be many such situations. But there are some.”

Encopresis " Emotional stress. Factors that create emotional anxiety or stress in children may interrupt their regular bowel routine and cause constipation. Events that lead to stress include parental dispute, birth of a sibling, challenges at school or moving to a new home. Children who are not toilet trained or are toilet trained too early may feel emotional and social distress. Other known childhood/adolescence emotional disorders that can trigger encopresis include oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder."

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Disclaimer: The above content is intended for general informational purposes and does not constitute any psychological or other medical professional advice. I don't diagnose conditions, nor do I interfere with any treatments given by your medical professional.

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