How Stress Can Trigger a Drug Relapse

by | May 31, 2017 | Blog, Family Resources, Los Angeles Alcohol Rehab, Los Angeles Drug Rehab

Are you recovering or in sobriety? Do you want to take the road of least resistance? Here is how stress can trigger a drug relapse.

It takes time and a great deal of strength to recover from an addiction. Unfortunately, there are certain triggers that can result in a relapse. Stress can sometimes be a natural part of the recovery process, as it’s easy for a person to feel overwhelmed. When the stress becomes too much, a person may be tempted to give into their addiction urges. For this reason, we are offering a guide on how stress can trigger a drug relapse.

How Stress Works

The average person’s brain releases two groups of chemicals:

  • Hormones
  • Neurotransmitters (chemical messengers)

During times of stress, the brain will release the chemical corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRF). Once this chemical is released, it is followed by adrenocorticotropin (ACTH). The two chemicals will help to stimulate the adrenal glands, which produces cortisol. The role of cortisol is to counteract bodily stress. Cortisol will tell the brain it no longer needs CRF or ACTH unless the stress is serious. The stress-response system is different for those addicted to drugs.

Dr. Mary Kreek from Rockefeller University studied the group of chemicals. Alongside a group of researchers, they used a drug to block cortisol production. For those with no addiction, the lack of cortisol meant nothing stopped CRF or ACTH. This resulted in an increase of ACTH levels. Yet, a lack of cortisol in drug users had little impact on their ACTH levels. If they received the research drug during opiate withdrawal, the ACTH level would double. This proves that recovering drug users have a greater stress sensitivity. A person’s stress-response system may only return to normal after three months of methadone treatment. During this time, a drug relapse is more likely to occur.

A Coping Mechanism

The Annals of New York Academy of Sciences stated there is a connection between stress and drug use. Researchers believe stress in the early stages of life can increase the risk of addiction. Drugs can provide a form of stress release, as they will experience a euphoria. Many addicts will use drugs as a coping mechanism, so they no longer have to focus on the pain. The drugs will become a form of pain relief to the user. The initial drug abuse may have started as a way of relaxing after a hard day of work. It may have even been a way to socialize and have fun with friends. In their mind, they might associate the substance with stress relief. When things become a little tough, they will become more dependent on the drug for comfort. That’s why stress can be such a big influence on a recovering addict. The moment he or she has to deal with stress, they will want to return to their crutch to improve their mood. Unfortunately, stress is an inevitable part of life, and it is likely a person will be tempted to relapse at some point.

Stress Followed by a Reminder

An addict is more likely to return to drugs if their stress is followed by a reminder of their addiction. The unwanted reminder could be a person who sold the drugs, the sight of drug taking or the location of drug abuse. Any reminder of drug taking can make a person crave drugs, which may boost the likelihood of a drug relapse. It doesn’t matter if a person has been in recovery for a long time. Stress combined with a reminder might be enough to trigger a drug relapse.

Dealing with the Past

Part of the recovery process is learning to deal with the stress before, after and during the drug abuse. Unfortunately, many people may be unable to let go of the past, so are unable to focus on their future. As a result, they may feel continually stressed or nervous, which can take a hold on their behavior. A therapist can often be the key to saying goodbye to old feelings or worries. By learning to put the past behind them, a person can finally move forward.

Spot the Signs of Stress

It is important to nip stress in the bud before it is too late. Many people often ignore the signs of stress. They may also confuse their feelings with tiredness or illness. To prevent a drug relapse, you must spot the signs of stress as soon as they occur.

For instance, you may experience:

  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Chest pains
  • Insomnia
  • Problems socializing
  • Concentration problems
  • Under or overeating
  • Racing thoughts

By spotting the signs early on, you can seek the appropriate support to reduce the risk of a drug relapse.

Stress Management

Stress can often convince a person that they have no other choice but to relapse. It is important to discuss any urges you might be experiencing with a sponsor or recovery expert. Therapy sessions can be a great place to talk about how stressful situations affect a person. An expert can then teach various stress management techniques to overcome any urges.

For instance, in times of stress, it might be beneficial to:

  • Meditate
  • Visualize
  • Remove yourself from a stressful environment

These simple yet effective techniques could be all it takes to prevent a drug relapse. Never underestimate the importance of group counseling or individual therapy. It can be helpful to discuss how you are feeling with someone who is battling with the same problems. What’s more, you may learn extra coping techniques that can help you reduce stress. Other ways to counteract stress to prevent a drug relapse include:


Exercise can provide a person with a focus, so they can forget about their daily worries. It also releases endorphins, which is a feel-good hormone that can boost a person’s mood. There is an exercise for everyone, from going to the gym and boxing to hiking or cycling. You just have to find one to suit your personality.

A Healthy Lifestyle

If you look after your body, your body will look after you. That’s why it’s important to enjoy enough sleep and eat a well-balanced, healthy diet. It can be a great way to reduce stress, as sleep will ensure you feel more relaxed and rested. Avoid eating or drinking too much sugar or caffeine, as they can increase your stress levels. Are your struggling with your recovery? Do you think stress could lead to a drug relapse?

Contact us to discuss our Extended Care Drug Rehab Programs.

Tabytha Dyne

Tabytha Dyne

Tabytha Dyne is a professional in both the mental health and drug and alcohol recovery field. She has worked extensively in both the public and private sectors and has given many presentations on the subject of alcohol and substance abuse. She has worked for the past 10 years providing direct service education for individuals impacted by SUD and behavioral health issues.