How Anxiety Disorders And Substance Dependence Effect Each Other


Approximately 20% of people diagnosed with an anxiety disorder also suffer from substance dependence. Unfortunately, recovering from a substance dependence is more difficult for people who also suffer from anxiety disorders.

If you have both an anxiety disorder and substance dependence and find yourself struggling with addiction recovery, you should not feel defeated; there are very real scientific reasons why your journey to recovery might be more difficult than for others. Here are the reasons why, and what you can do to maximize your chances of overcoming your substance dependency.

What is Substance Dependence?

"Substance dependence" is a term that the medical community uses to identify a physical and psychological reliance on a substance, even though this reliance interferes with the person's life. The substance can be an illegal drug, such as heroin or cocaine, a pharmaceutical, like a stimulant, or even tobacco or alcohol.

The symptoms of a substance dependency are the same regardless of the substance involved. Some of the most common symptoms include:

  • Increased tolerance to the substance;
  • Withdrawal symptoms when without the substance;
  • Favoring the substance over other activities or responsibilities;
  • Taking the substance more frequently or for a prolonged period despite wanting to stop; and
  • Continuing use despite the negative effects on day-to-day activities. 

Basics of Anxiety Disorders

An anxiety disorder is not an actual disease, but rather a blanket term used to identify a group of individual mental illnesses, such as generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and panic disorder. If you have an anxiety disorder, your brain makeup is different than the brain makeup of people without an anxiety disorder.

Brain Differences in People With Anxiety Disorders

The "amygdala" is the part of the brain that regulates your body's response to fear and unusual situations. Scientists have discovered that, in people diagnosed with anxiety disorders, the amygdala is hyper-responsive to situations. For example, if you suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, your amygdala is more responsive to environmental events than the amygdalas of other individuals.

Furthermore, scientists know that if the amygdala does not receive proper amounts of the chemical dopamine, symptoms of anxiety disorders can arise. The link between anxiety disorders and improper dopamine levels in the amygdala is well-established, and this link is the key to understanding why people with anxiety disorders often have more difficulty recovering from substance dependencies than people without anxiety disorders.

Dopamine, Substance Dependence, and Anxiety Disorders

One of the reasons why substances are addictive is because they create a spike of dopamine in the brain. If you repeatedly use a substance, your brain becomes lazy and does not create as much dopamine as it did prior to your substance use. The substance is doing the work for your brain; thus, when you do not consume the substance, the dopamine levels in your brain are significantly lower because your brain is no longer creating the amount of dopamine that it once did. The innate desire to increase these dopamine levels leads to substance dependence.

When it comes to overcoming a substance dependence, you are at a marked disadvantage if you also suffer from an anxiety disorder because your amygdala is already predisposed to having lower levels of dopamine in the first place. This places you at a higher risk of developing a substance dependency, and an even higher risk of relapsing after seeking treatment for that dependency.

Help for People With Anxiety Disorders and Substance Dependency

If you have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and also have a substance dependency, you should not give up seeking treatment from a recovery center, such as When you seek treatment for a substance dependency, tell your doctor about your anxiety disorder. If your doctor subsequently addresses and treats your anxiety disorder, you may improve your chances of recovering from your substance dependency.


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