How to Cope With Anxiety Without Using Substances
Anxiety is one of the most common mental health conditions in the world. There are several different types of anxiety disorders, and an estimated 18% of U.S. adults struggle with anxiety disorder symptoms. Although anxiety is a distressing and common addiction, it is highly treatable. But unfortunately, some of the most commonly prescribed and effective anxiety medicines are addictive. Also, many people who have anxiety symptoms will turn to alcohol to find some relief.
What’s a generalized anxiety disorder?
There are five major types of anxiety disorders, but the most commonly diagnosed anxiety disorder in U.S. adults is called “generalized anxiety disorder,” or GAD. With this mental health condition, the people who have it greatly struggle with overwhelming feelings of fear and worry. The things people with GAD worry about can range from significant, disastrous situations such as job loss, homelessness, or death to smaller issues such as forgetting to lock the front door at night. While people without GAD can worry about these things, their worries or fears don’t cause other problems in their lives. People without an anxiety disorder also have an easier time calming themselves and getting over their concerns, so they don’t significantly impact their life.
People with GAD often live in a continuous state of fear and worry. Their professional and personal lives suffer, and they can also experience physical health symptoms related to their anxiety as well. Excessive fear and worry can cause stomach aches, tension headaches, back pain, and a range of other issues. Also, people with untreated GAD are at high risk of abusing alcohol. An estimated 20% of people with this condition also have a substance use disorder. While abusing drugs or alcohol can relieve anxiety symptoms in the short-term, long-term, these habits only make anxiety symptoms worse. Also, people who turn to drugs or alcohol to cope will become addicted, and experience other adverse symptoms on top of GAD.
GAD and Co-Occurring Substance Abuse
Those who experience GAD symptoms are at higher risk of drug and alcohol addiction than people who don’t have GAD. As GAD symptoms get worse, people will turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate. What makes treating GAD and co-occurring drug addiction difficult is that anxiety disorder symptoms can mirror addiction symptoms. Plus, many of the medications used to treat GAD can be addictive, primarily benzodiazepines like Xanax. In fact, the most commonly abused substances in people with GAD are benzodiazepines and alcohol. Just because a drug is prescribed by a doctor, doesn’t mean that the prescription is 100% safe.
Abusing drugs and alcohol has a significant impact on the symptoms of anxiety, and can fuel a dangerous cycle of dependency and addiction. After some time of abusing drugs to cope with anxiety symptoms, a person’s body will develop a tolerance and a physical dependence on drugs. When this happens, the person needs more and more of the substance to get the desired effects. Without outside intervention, it’s hard for people to overcome these issues on their own. In cases of co-occurring substance abuse and mental health disorders, treating both problems at the same time is crucial for recovery. Getting a person’s anxiety under control will help them avoid recurrence and temptations to use drugs in the future.
Are there holistic ways to treat GAD?
It is possible to treat anxiety disorders with holistic treatment methods, but addiction, anxiety, and mental health issues require highly individualistic, and tailored treatment methods. Without a tailored approach, a person is at high risk of recurrence. For those with anxiety and past addiction issues have a dual diagnosis, so they should look into a treatment facility, including holistic ways to treat GAD. Some of the most common holistic methods for addressing GAD symptoms are:
- Staying Active: Exercise offers a natural and healthy way to relieve symptoms of worry and fear. Regular aerobic exercise reduces tension and can also improve an anxious person’s ability to sleep. Insomnia is a major side effect of untreated anxiety.
- Avoiding Nicotine, Caffeine, and Alcohol: Both nicotine and caffeine are stimulant substances that can rev up a person’s anxiety and make them more nervous. When it comes to alcohol, once the buzz wears off, anxiety returns worse than before.
- Reducing anxiety is one of the primary reasons for meditating is to reduce chaotic, worrisome thoughts. Meditation teaches people how to manage these thoughts without fighting them because fighting what’s happening can make it worse. When it comes to anxiety, people are often focused on the future, which no one can predict. Research has found that even just a half-hour of meditation a day can reduce feelings of anxiety and depression, too.
- A poor diet can both trigger anxiety symptoms or make current symptoms worse. Having low blood sugar or being dehydrated may trigger adverse mood symptoms in some people. For those prone to anxiety, staying hydrated, and being sure to eat healthy meals at regular intervals can reduce distress.
Are there medications for anxiety that aren’t addictive?
Xanax may be a popular benzodiazepine medication for anxiety, but it’s addictive properties, and risk factors are well-known. Unfortunately, not everyone can gain control of their anxiety symptoms through diet, exercise, and lifestyle changes alone. In these cases, medication can help those with GAD gain a sense of control and well-being over their lives. Many SSRIs, which are often used to alleviate depression symptoms, can also reduce feelings of anxiety. SSRIs don’t come with the same addiction risks as Xanax. There are also numerous effective SSRIs on the market, and finding one that alleviates anxiety without causing painful side effects is possible. Paxil, Lexapro, Zoloft, Prozac, and Celexa are some of the most popular SSRIs used for anxiety treatment.
SNRIs are similar to SSRIs. Both of these medicines impact neurotransmitters or brain chemicals that play a role in mental health symptoms. SNRIs are commonly used to treat depression. However, these medicines can also reduce anxiety symptoms. Cymbalta and Effexor are often used for these purposes.
Anxiety is a common and distressing mental health disorder, but it is highly treatable. Treatment does not have to entail taking an addictive medication like Xanax or turning to alcohol as a quick way to reduce symptoms. For those with anxiety, a combination of non-addictive medicines, therapy, and lifestyle changes can go a long way toward giving them relief.
If you or a loved one are struggling with symptoms of anxiety and substance abuse, please contact Ethos Recovery today. Our experienced counselors can help you explore treatment and therapy options.
Author – Chris Howard
Chris Howard is the Founder and Director of Ethos Recovery. He has a B.A. in Psychology from UCLA and has served as a community advocate/mentor for men and women in recovery since 2010.