Whilst there are often many different contributors towards addiction, it is fair to say that stress is one of the main driving causes, since it has predictable effects on the mind and brain. What is the connection between stress and addiction and are there any ways to break this link?
In this article we will make the obvious connection between stress and addiction, but also connect these two concepts up with the third concept of mindfuless and meditation to show that there is a solution to potentially break this link.
Stress is often a driver of addiction, since it often release hormones and creates an agitation in the mind and body that addiction can be used to temporarily relieve. Mindfulness can be a holistic way to reduce stress and therefore reduce the need to discharge stress via addictive behaviours.
Let’s look at the connections between these concepts in more detail below, first detailing the connection between stress and addiction, and then covering mindfulness as a potential method to weaken or break this connection.
The Role of Stress in Addiction
Stress has been long acknowledged to be in important predictor of addiction. Stress is just a part of most of our lives and can come from lots of different sources, like work, relationship issues, financial worries, health issues and so on. Stress also needs to be differentiated between short term stress and more longer term chronic stress.
It is the latter which can cause the most problems, sometimes causing changes in brain chemistry as stress hormones such as cortisol are released. Very short term stress is not always so problematic and can actually provide people with the motivation and focus they need to get something done. More prolonged or severe stress can of course lead to problems.
As a solution to this some people do end up turning to addictive behaviours as a way of temporarily discharging this stress that builds up. Substance and sexual addiction are two common outlets, but other addictions such as gambling, shopping and food can also prove just as powerful and destructive.
The problem with these solutions is that they are only temporary and if they become ingrained behaviour patterns they will start to cause other problems in the financial, health and relationship spheres of life.
We have embedded a video by addiction expert Patrick Carnes, where he discusses some of the main contributors towards addiction, such as fear and trauma.
But stress is identified as a key contributor, and the reason for this is that prolonged stress induces changes in brain chemistry that people seek to find an outlet to remedy. This is where addictive patterns can take hold.
Stress & Addiction
Patrick Carnes: “You can’t really have an addiction without stress because of what it does to the brain”
This is of course not to say that stress is the ONLY cause of addiction. Of course there are other factors such as underlying trauma, pain or emotional issues which can also drive addiction.
Carnes also believes that genetic and hereditary factors can make a person more susceptible to addiction even from birth. See the full interview from which the above clip was taken for a brilliant discussion of addiction.
We should also stress that it is very important to never just look for one cause to any phenomenon including addiction, since it is rarely that simple. There are almost always several or many contributing factors towards anything like addiction, and it can be a trap of Western thinking to try to reduce every problem we face down to one single cause and effect.
So we do not seek to downplay or minimise any of the other well known drivers of addiction such as trauma, and it can often be several factors at play once addiction is truly understood and picked apart.
But in this article we do want to emphasise stress as a key component of many addictions and one of the first things (but not the only thing) addicts should look at when seeking to understand their condition.
A Good Example of The Link Between Stress & Addiction
We will use a high profile example of this connection between stress and addiction. The exposure of Tiger Wood’s various infidelities is now well known, and when the full extent of his behaviour was exposed it was not difficult to see the addictive patterns, engaging compulsively in affairs for years and by many accounts exercising little or no self control in any of these encounters.
He also kept this behaviour hidden for years from even those closest to him, including his wife, swing coach and caddy; a key sign of addiction.
Whilst it seems strange to venture into scandals in the sporting world to make a point about stress and addiction, an observation made by his former caddy who worked with him for years so perfectly summarises the connection between stress and addiction that we had to include it in this article.
Here is a quote from Steve William’s book Out of the Rough, where he recalls how he always wondered how Woods handled stress in his life:
“In the back of my mind, one thought often replayed over and over, without an answer: What did Tiger do with himself to get rid of the stress that build up in his life?…He Loved the gym work……I figured the addiction to the gym was where he got rid of many of his frustrations.” p.204, bold emphasis added
This quote perfectly sums up how stress can be a driver of addiction. It is not hard to imagine how the sheer media and public spotlight that was on Woods throughout the 90s and 2000s, as well as the pressures of competing in golf at the highest level, must have created a great deal of stress inside Woods that needed to be handled somehow. He needed to have some outlet or escape.
William’s mentions how he used to exercise a lot to try and release some pressure, but he also recalls that Woods sometimes couldn’t do this as he had several high profile injuries which needed surgery and kept him out of action for long periods. So what other outlets did Woods have to release the stress that being in the public spotlight so much must have built up in him?
This is not to excuse Wood’s behaviour or say that everyone in the public eye becomes an addict. It is just to point out that some people find healthier outlets than others to release stress which builds up in their lives.
If someone finds a behaviour or activity that works in relieving stress, they will tend to go back to it again and again, regardless of whether it is “moral” or “right” and even if it starts to cause problems in their life down the line.
This is how the addictive process can build up in the person as a caricatured behaviour pattern to manage stress. It becomes a dysfunctional way of calming the mind.
In the absence of awareness of other more holistic ways of managing stress such as meditation, they will just go back to what has worked for them before. This is why the benefits of mindfulness as a calmer of stress and anxiety need to be spread as far and wide as possible to help out anyone who could benefit from it.
Stress in an important predictor for addictive behaviours and outlets because of it’s effect on the brain and hormones
Mindfulness Meditation As a Solution For Stress
This is where solutions such as mindfulness meditation need to raise in awareness in the general public, as it is a holistic solution to the problems of both stress and addiction. In other words, it can address both symptom and cause.
Given that stress is a key predictor of addiction, anything that can healthily reduce stress can reduce the need find dysfunctional outlets for this stress in the form of various addictions.
Mindfulness is simply the practice of paying attention to things as they are in the present moment. It is derived from ancient Buddhism but has been repackaged into easily accessible forms, most commonly in the form of simple meditations where you simply focus on the breath or some other outer or inner phenomenon without judgement.
Through as little as 10 minutes of practice a day using simply breathing exercises, mindfulness meditation can serve to very quickly both relieve built up stress and increase tolerance and resistance to stress in the first place. This can serve to significantly reduce the potential triggers of addiction in the form of stress.
Mindfulness Meditation As a Solution For Addiction
Of course if someone already has a deeply embedded addiction then it is a more complex situation and is harder to handle. Repeatedly carrying out addictive activities a certain number of times changes the structure of the brain, making it harder to stop the behaviour even if the person wants to. They will often experience withdrawals and cravings if they try to give up “cold turkey”.
However even for someone who has an addiction, mindfulness and meditation can serve to slowly break the addiction by weakening the person’s attachment to it. We have embedded a couple of videos below by meditation expert Yutthadhammo Bhikkhu where he discusses addiction from a Buddhist perspective.
Mindfulness can serve to not get the rid of the addiction directly, but more indirectly by making the person realise their addiction and the cravings which follow it are not important. Their attachment to their addiction is slowly and gradually weakened, and with enough practice it can be left behind entirely.
We must stress that the mindflness path through addiction is a very slow gradual process that will certainly not happen overnight or even within days or weeks. More likely it will take many months of daily meditation practice, and the more you can do the better.
Nevertheless over time the person will notice their attachment to their addiction slowly fades and they can better handle and live with cravings until they pass without responding to them.
In this way mindulness can be seen as holistic solution to both the addiction and the stress which causes it. With a strong basis of mindfulness the person will also be far better at handling future stresses and therefore less likely to fall back into addictive outlets in the future.
Expert on Meditation For Drug and Alcohol Addiction
Key points from this video:
- Substance addictions especially do have a physical component where certain hormones build up in the body and/or brain. This will generate cravings.
- Mindfulness meditation does not get rid of these cravings, but will allow you to gain some detachment from them by seeing them from what they are, without being so caught up in them.
- Wanting and craving is just noted as such by the mind, but isn’t acted on. You just observe it, then let it pass like anything else.
- Breaking the connection between seeing something and wanting it can be classed as a crucial step in breaking addiction.
- In more general terms, meditation can be used to break down different aspects of addiction, like seeing, wanting, consuming, pleasure, preoccupation and so on.
- With deeper levels of insight that come with more prolonged meditative practice, you will start to see that these cravings do not belong to you, but are just passing sensations. Reaching this point allows real attachment from addictions.
Expert on Meditation For Sexual Addiction (And Addiction in General)
Key points from this video:
- Addiction comes out of ignorance – we are addicted to things because we don’t understand them in an ultimate sense.
- Understanding rather than avoidance allows us to overcome addictions.
- Once we see addictions and substances for what they really are, we will no longer be drawn or attached to them and we can let them go.
- In this sense, even acintg out addictions, but doing so mindfully, can often be of benefit for things like smoking, since once we break down the experience of actually doing these things, we see there isn’t really anything enjoyable about them. We start to notice the bad things we had overlooked.
- The Buddhist concept of Dependent Origination provides the path out of addiction.
- Repeatedly using mindfulness to just see the senses for what they are (seeing as seeing, tasting as tasting etc.) will help you see there is nothing intrinsically pleasurable about addictive activities.
- Seeing addictive things for what they are reduces their power over us.
See also our article on Buddhist perspectives on addiction for more on how meditaton can help.
Getting Started With Meditation
For readers interested, we have links to some introductory meditations that are easy to get started with, and should help deliver some benefits in relatively short order:
- Meditation 1 – Breathing Anchor
- Meditation 2 – Body Scan
- Meditation 3 – Breath and Body
- Meditation 4 – Sounds and Thoughts
- Meditation 5 – Exploring Difficulties
- Meditation 6 – Befriending
- Meditation 7 – 3 Minute Breathing Space
See also our Mindfulness Resources page for more videos and links to books on mindfulness.