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Stress and Relapse: The Role of Stress in Addiction Relapse

Stress and Relapse: The Role of Stress in Addiction Relapse

Everyone gets a little stressed time and again, but not everyone handles their stress well.

When some people feel overwhelmed, they may try going for a walk or meditating. When other people feel stressed, they may turn to drugs or alcohol to cope. With time, this bad habit can transform into an addiction problem. Although you may have gone to a drug rehab center to get sober, old habits are hard to break and stress could send you back down the wrong path.

Stress as A Relapse Trigger

Relapse triggers can come in many different shapes and forms. While many people are quick to think about physical drug triggers like people, places, or drug paraphernalia, addiction relapse triggers can be abstract concepts as well. In fact, one of the biggest relapse triggers is stress.

Along with being a possible contributing factor to a substance abuse disorder, an alcohol or drug relapse from stress is not uncommon. In addicted individuals, stressful imagery led to feelings of fear, sadness, and anger, and personal stressors lead to significant drug cravings.1 For those in recovery, the results are similar. One study found that cocaine addicts that were newly abstinent had increased sensitivity to emotional distress than controls and also experienced greater drugs cravings as a result of these stress cues.2 Other research found that former alcoholics who had been sober for four weeks reported far greater levels of distress and alcohol cravings in response to stress than social drinkers.3

While the exact role of stress in addiction relapse is unclear, one reason for this correlation may have to do with changes in the brain and brain activity as a result of dependency. With time, drug and alcohol use can modify both the stress and dopamine pathways in the brain that can inhibit their normal functioning and lead to heightened drugs cravings, especially when stress levels are high.1 Many drug addicts or alcoholics may also have a history of turning to these substances during times of stress to try and forget. This repeated coping behavior can be hard to break even if they have learned healthier coping techniques.

Combating Stress & Relapse Prevention

Because stress in addiction relapse is so common, it is important for people in recovery to learn how to deal with stress in a way that does not involve drugs or alcohol. These coping mechanisms can help people in recovery replace their addiction with healthier habits during high levels of stress and find lasting sobriety.

Some ways to deal with stress in addiction recovery include:

  • Exercise
  • Meditation
  • Controlled breathing
  • Self-reflection
  • Stepping away
  • Talking it out
  • Journaling
  • Practicing techniques from addiction therapies
  • Going outside
  • Faith or spirituality
  • Developing a healthy routine

When you can learn to cope with stress in recovery without turning to drugs or alcohol, you will find that you are not only much happier but also that you have a much better chance of avoiding relapse. If you do falter and relapse, it is okay. For many people, relapse is a part of the recovery journey and they are able to learn from their mistakes. At Banyan Treatment Centers, we offer relapse recovery programs to help people get back on track so that one relapse doesn’t snowball back into addiction

If you or a loved one has a substance abuse or mental health disorder, we are here to help. With several different addiction treatment locations, we have been helping people across the nation get and stay sober.

To begin your journey today or to learn more about how we may be able to help your loved one, call us now at 888-280-4763.


  1. NCBI - Chronic Stress, Drug Use, and Vulnerability to Addiction
  2. NCBI - Enhanced Sensitivity to Stress and Drug/Alcohol Craving in Abstinent Cocaine-Dependent Individuals Compared to Social Drinkers
  3. NCBI - Enhanced Negative Emotion and Alcohol Craving, and Altered Physiological Responses Following Stress and Cue Exposure in Alcohol Dependent Individuals
Alyssa, Director of Digital Marketing
Alyssa, Director of Digital Marketing
Alyssa is the National Director of Digital Marketing and is responsible for a multitude of integrated campaigns and events in the behavioral health and addictions field. All articles have been written by Alyssa and medically reviewed by our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Darrin Mangiacarne.
Stress and Relapse: The Role of Stress in Addiction Relapse
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