Understanding the Correlation Between Anxiety and Relapse

Understanding the Correlation Between Anxiety and Relapse

Addiction is a chronic and relapsing disorder, with relapse rates being as high as 70% in the 90 days after completing a rehab program.[1] Although many factors contribute to someone relapsing, anxiety is one of the most powerful ones. But what is the correlation between anxiety and relapse? Learn more about how your mental health impacts your chances of staying sober.
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Co-Occurring Conditions and Their Role In Addiction

People who have mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety, are at a higher risk of developing a substance use disorder. The overwhelming symptoms that mental illness causes can lead you to search for any way of getting relief, including the use of drugs or alcohol.

Although it may offer temporary help, substance abuse will actually make the symptoms worse in the long run because mental illness and substance use tend to affect the same areas of the brain. These include those that govern emotions, impulse control, rewards, and decision-making.[2] Both substance abuse and mental illness lead to structural changes and chemical imbalances in those areas.

Anxiety disorders are common co-occurring conditions. The list of anxiety disorders includes:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Phobias

Different Types of Anxiety and Its Effect On A Relapse

Generalized anxiety involves having excessive and hard-to-control anxiety most days of the week, while a panic disorder leads you to experience sudden panic attacks that can leave you gasping for air and dizzy.

PTSD is a disorder that occurs after witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event, causing flashbacks and severe anxiety. OCD is another common form of anxiety that causes you to have uncontrollable thoughts and engage in repetitive behaviors to neutralize the anxiety those thoughts cause.

Another type of anxiety is social anxiety disorder, which is an intense fear of being watched and judged by others. Anxiety can also appear in the form of phobias.

Anxiety affects the levels of the stress hormone called cortisol while also making changes to the amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for your body’s responses to threatening stimuli. Anxiety causes the amygdala to grow and become more active, heightening your response to frightening situations.[3]

Addiction also affects the amygdala, causing it to become overactive. This leads to the feelings of irritability, unease, and anxiety you may experience when you’re in recovery, which could lead you to relapse.[4]

What Causes a Relapse? Why Anxiety and Relapses Have a Link

After you stop using the substance you have an addiction to, your body will require a significant amount of time to start functioning more normally. Your amygdala will still be more reactive than it should be, leading to feelings of anxiety and stress. If you already had an anxiety disorder before the addiction, symptoms can get bad enough that you’re pulled back into using.

Prolonged anxiety can also lead to isolation, which only makes symptoms worse and increases the likelihood that you’ll turn to using drugs or alcohol again.

Stress is the most common cause of relapse. People tend to turn back to drugs or alcohol as a maladaptive way of coping. Because anxiety leads to the release of cortisol, your body responds to it as it would to stressful events — putting you at risk of a relapse.

Anxiety and stress are not the only warning signs that alert you that a relapse could happen. Any negative emotion can trigger a relapse, especially if you’ve not delved into how you can better manage those emotions.

Seeing the object of your addiction also makes a relapse more likely. Seeing someone sip a cocktail at a bar or smelling someone smoking marijuana can trigger cravings that are hard to shake off. Even people who remind you of using can lead to a relapse.

Maintaining Your Sobriety at Desert Cove Recovery

For those struggling with a substance use disorder, managing anxiety is one of the most effective ways of decreasing your chances of a relapse. Desert Cove Recovery offers extended care programs that focus on relapse prevention. We understand that every addiction is different, and your path to sobriety won’t be identical to anyone else’s, so we offer individualized extended care programs.

With holistic therapies that help you re-engage your whole being, small group therapy sessions, individual therapy sessions, and much more, extended care can be the right option for those needing more ongoing support.

Call us at Desert Cove Recovery to learn more about our programs.



[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3674771/

[2] https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/common-comorbidities-substance-use-disorders/why-there-comorbidity-between-substance-use-disorders-mental-illnesses

[3] https://www.mdpi.com/1422-0067/23/19/11076

[4] https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drugs-brain