Can Stress Trigger Relapse?

man thinking about how stress can trigger relapse

There is a lot of research that shows the relationship between stress and substance abuse, including firsthand evidence of recovering addicts who fall back into an addiction due to stress. Researchers have long established this connection. Previously, these findings have led to stress management courses and other interventions that aim to help addicts manage their stress. However, as more research emerges, it is possible that we could have medical treatments to prevent stress-induced relapse. Researchers have identified the process by which stress can trigger a relapse, which has opened the door to new treatment options.

Stress and Drug Addiction – The Psychology

Researchers understand the psychology behind stress-related drug-seeking behavior much more than the neurology. Most drugs cause some sort of relaxation in the user. This effect often makes drugs seem effective for stress relief. For example, an individual might go for a drink with some colleagues after work. They might use this as an opportunity to unwind after a long day. Similarly, he might go out to a club over the weekend and take ecstasy as a “reward” for his week of work. The more the user associates stress relief and substance abuse, the more they become dependent on the drug.

It is not hard to understand the psychological link between stress and drug addiction. Many addicts see drugs as a solution to stress. However, stress is inevitable. This means that people who use substances for stress relief are likely to form an addiction to the drug. Even if the individual stops taking drugs for a while, large stressors could be enough to drive them back to old habits.

Stress Can Trigger Relapse – The Neurology

To understand the impact of drug addiction, you need to understand how the body and brain normally deal with stress. In response to a stressor, the brain releases chemicals that are “messengers” for the body and the brain. Your brain first releases a chemical that tells your glands to produce cortisol to counteract the stress the body is experiencing. The presence of cortisol in the blood tells the brain that you no longer need these messengers. Unless of course, the stressor is a particularly serious one.

To see if the stress-response system operates differently in individuals addicted to drugs, researchers used a drug that blocks the production of cortisol. In people not suffering from drug addiction, the absence of this chemical means that nothing stops the brain from producing messengers for your body and brain. As a result, your stress levels increase.

However, for current heroin users, the drug had little effect on stress levels at all, leading to only a small increase of messengers. If the drug is given during withdrawal from opiates, the level of stress increases to twice as much as in non-addicts. This shows that addicts have a much greater sensitivity to stress. It takes around three months to bring the body’s stress-response system back to normal. This means that the brain of an addict will respond much more sensitively to stress, making stress more likely to trigger relapse in drug users.

The New Research

The psychological explanation for the link between stress and drug relapse offers a useful way to understand the issue. However, biological models of how this happens open up the possibility of creating drugs to prevent it. New research identifies several key pathways in the process of stress leading to a relapse. The researchers found that the receptors in the ventral tegmental area of the brain are activated by stress, which is implicated in the process of stress-induced relapse.

This means that an antagonist drug that works on these receptors could short-circuit the stress response and therefore reduce the likelihood of relapse. The experiment to test the effectiveness of this medication has been conducted in rats, and the initial results are positive. The study took once cocaine-addicted rats and placed them under stress to see if they attempted to use cocaine again. Those who received the antagonist did not relapse. However, the ones who did not take the drug took cocaine under stress.

Implications for Addiction Treatment

If the drug is tested further and has positive outcomes in human trials, it could prevent stress-related relapse altogether. As one of the most common reasons for relapse, this could be an invaluable tool for rehab centers all across the country. It is important to note that it would not be a “cure” in any sense of the word, but it would help users stay abstinent long enough for psychological treatment to have an effect. For that reason, this could become a landmark piece of research in substance abuse treatment. Contact The Right Step at 713.528.3709 if you or a loved one need help with drug abuse. We are here to help.

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