Connections Between Stress and Substance Cravings Continue to Emerge

Connections Between Stress and Substance Cravings Continue to Emerge

Recovery from drug or alcohol addiction is a step by step process, often marked by success and then a relapse. Experts are studying the role of stress on cravings, and how cravings can trigger a relapse, in hopes of finding ways patients can manage the underlying factors that set them up for a fall as they are working toward recovery. Findings are pointing toward stress as the primary factor in relapse, and may even link biological processes related to stress to substance cravings.

Pennsylvania State’s H. Harrington Cleveland, associate human development professor, led a study that may give deeper insight into cravings and relapse. Together with colleagues from Texas Tech’s Center for the Study of Addiction and Recovery, Cleveland studied the diaries of college-age participants who were recovering from addiction in hopes of better understanding the steps that precede a triggering event.

Essentially, how the person handles daily stress – whether they run away from a stressful situation or tackle it head on – made a big difference in their susceptibility to cravings that trigger relapse. Published in the journal Addictive Behaviors, researchers say people battling addiction who have a stronger skill set toward working through stress have a higher likelihood of a successful recovery.

During the study, 55 students kept a journal of their urges for drugs or alcohol, detailing how intense the feelings were, especially the negative ones, and also documenting their plans or processes for working through stressful situations.

Cleveland said the most important finding was that the choice of the participant to hide from stress or to cope with it made the biggest impact on how everyday stress connected to the strength of their cravings for drugs or alcohol.

For the students who didn’t try to work through or face their stress, choosing instead to escape from it, the connection between daily stress and having strong drug or alcohol cravings doubled. For the people who used active processes to work through their stress, the number of cravings was markedly less, even during stressful times.

Clinical research toward the biological impacts of stress may build the case further for exploring how stress impacts cravings and relapse. Stress raises the amount of a peptide in the brain called corticotropin releasing factor, or CRF, also referred to as corticotrophin releasing hormone.

The increased levels of CRF then spur several stress-induced actions in both people and animals, including behaviors typical of anxiety problems. CRF is being studied in new treatments for anxiety disorders, and unusually high levels of CRF have been identified in the spinal fluid of people who commit suicide.

Research has also indicated there may be overlapping patterns between the neurocircuits that react to drugs and those that create stress reactions. Further studies have suggested people who have experienced highly stressful situations, like war or a violent attack, and who also develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder are at a higher level of risk for abusing drugs or alcohol.

As research continues on several levels about the impacts of stress on cravings and relapse, experts hope to find new technologies to target the body’s processes under stress that may lead to improved addiction treatments.

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