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Stress and Addiction - the Relationship

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Stress and Addiction - In today's depressed economy, job loss is more frequent. Those who have managed to retain their employment are often required to work more hours, take on more responsibilities, and spend less time with families. Time for leisure and extracurricular activities is at a minimum for those fighting to keep their jobs. Others are not as fortunate. With unemployment at its highest levels since the Great Depression, many people are out of work and struggling financially to survive. Health care costs are at an all-time high. Many are uninsured and cannot afford basic health maintenance. If one is fortunate enough to see a doctor, the skyrocketing price of pharmaceuticals restricts their access to medications. Sick family members require family care that removes someone from the work force. People are retraining for new careers while working odd jobs to feed and shelter their families. News networks bombard the public with forecasts of doom and gloom as unemployment figures have increased monthly for a year. Terrorism is a constant threat as our military volunteers are spread throughout the world to protect freedom, leaving their families alone at home. Obesity is at record levels in the United States with one third of the population tipping the scales into dangerous zones. Life is full of daily hassles for most people. Extended exposure to personal daily problems, financial woes, and environmental stressors compounded with dim hopes of improvement snowball into a never-ending downward spiral until all control over personal and societal priorities seems lost. Life is not actually like this for some people but for many, it is. The resulting circumstance one finds themselves in when control is lost is extreme stress.

Many people live with a code of definite authoritative tenets. This is their dogma. For some, it is social dominance. For others, it may be political beliefs. Many people have a certain way things must be for life to be in harmonious congruence with the environment, be it in the workplace, at home, or in social situations. When circumstances present that are not in congruence with one's dogma, stress results.

What is stress? Stress is any type of stimulus that challenges an organism's internal balance, or homeostasis (Wand, 2008). The stimulus, in terms of negative stress can be real or merely perceived as real. Stress induces a physiologic response that involves an assortment of hormones as well as signaling neurotransmitters that act on the brain and other organs. Acute stress, intense stress that lasts for short periods, can rapidly cause exhaustion, even to the point of initiating anxiety attacks or even states of shock. The sudden tragic loss of a spouse or child can result in acute stress. Chronic stress is a subtle, enduring condition of tension to which many people become accustomed. Chronic stress is often ignored until serious physical symptoms occur. This stress will permanently damage you (Spacek, 2009). Stress influences behavior in a fashion that allows adaptation for survival. Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon coined the term "fight or flight" in 1932 to describe the body's reaction to stress (Brannon & Feist, 2010). Stress alters one's homeostasis, or stable state of equilibrium (Wand, 2008). It is important to understand that stress is a very subjective and nonspecific condition or feeling of tension or pressure (Marks, 2008). For each person, the perception of stressful situations is different. How might one respond to stress? Considering Cannon's original theory, when one is threatened they have two options. One can flee from the threat or fight for survival. In "primitive survival mode", this concept of standing ground and fighting or running for your life seems sensible. When one is assaulted walking down the sidewalk, the only options available are to run or fight. When a dog attacks, you run or fight if you want to avoid injury. In most people's lives, they are rarely assaulted or attacked by an animal. The majority of stressors are not life threatening. They consist of pressure to perform in school, pressure to perform on the job, sitting in a traffic jam while your daughter waits for you alone in the dark after gymnastics, financial obligations in a depressed economic environment, and resulting relationship issues from balancing home life with environmental challenges. The "fight or flight" options do not really seem productive in these situations. One cannot run from their job when pressure mounts without negative consequences. Punching your boss in the kisser instead of fleeing will certainly be counterproductive and initiate stress that is even more negative. Financial obligations must be met or negative stressors will continually mount. How much stress would result if one yields to the pressure of traffic and decides to "pick up the kid tomorrow"? People have to meet the demands of work and school. Fleeing is not an option. Difficulties result when our inherent, subconscious response for survival lacks sound cognitive reason. So, we stress.

Persons with robust personalities and sound cognitive abilities tend to be more emotionally equipped to logically dissect problems and analyze their origin, thereby eliminating precipitating factors that cause stress. Unfortunately, others turn to alcohol and other drugs to temporarily forget their suffering by self-medicating. Research published in 1999 revealed that stress-motivated drinking was more prominent in undergraduate years for university students as opposed to those in graduate school but stress-related reasons for substance abuse is more problematic in terms of consumption levels in the years after college (Perkins, 2005). The study concluded that substance use for stress reduction becomes the primary motivation for continual use. Subsequential abuse as one ages, becomes problematic and continually manifests in terms of negative consequences. Physiologically, the stress response is capable of exacerbating the development of alcohol and other drug dependency through various stages of addiction. Alcohol and other drugs are responsible for the release of glucocordicords and corticotrophin releasing factor, which mediates the rewarding experiences system. This system is the mesocorticolimbic dopamine system. What does this mean in terms of behavior? Elevated levels of glucocorticoids create feelings of euphoria. When alcohol and other drug ingestion becomes a response to stress, resulting in feelings of euphoria, our experience of self-reward is reinforced. Extended periods of stress impair this reward system for some, resulting in profound increases in frequency of substance use as well as quantity of substances used. As increased frequency of ingestion takes place, tolerance becomes a factor. Tolerance is a progressive reduction in a person's



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