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Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) & Addiction | Symptoms, Risk Factors, & Dual Diagnosis Treatment

Published on May 11, 2021
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) & Addiction | Symptoms, Risk Factors, & Dual Diagnosis Treatment

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is a mental condition in which a person worries excessively and constantly about everyday things or nothing in particular. They have an underlying sense that something will go wrong, even if everything is going well.

Anxiety is one of the primary risk factors for addiction. When someone doesn’t know how to cope with stress, they are more likely to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol to relax and ease their anxiety.

Prevalence Of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) & Addiction

More than 23 million adults in the United States will struggle with substance abuse and addiction at some point in their lives. Of people with a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), 30 to 35 percent have a co-occurring alcohol use disorder, and 25 to 30 percent engage in drug abuse.

Substance use disorders (SUDs) are common among people with GAD because drugs and alcohol temporarily relieve the symptoms of GAD. Unfortunately, alcohol or drug use affects the way your brain and body functions, and over time it’s likely to cause even more anxiety.

Symptoms Of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) & Addiction

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) defines generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) as excessive anxiety about general events or activities that persists for at least six months.

If you have GAD, you’ll also have difficulty controlling worry. You may:

  • worry more than the situation warrants
  • dwell on worry and be unable to let it go
  • overthink and assume the worst outcome
  • feel threatened by harmless situations
  • be indecisive and afraid to choose the wrong thing
  • have trouble dealing with uncertainty

Physical Symptoms Of GAD

Because the body and mind are deeply connected, people with GAD may have physical symptoms as well as psychological distress. Symptoms of anxiety include heart problems, migraines, and digestive issues (like irritable bowel syndrome).

According to the DSM-V, someone with GAD also suffers from at least three of the following six symptoms:

  • fatigue
  • irritability
  • muscle aches or tension
  • feeling restless, being unable to relax
  • having trouble concentrating or feeling like their mind goes blank
  • difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep (insomnia)

Symptoms Of Addiction

Most of these six symptoms could also be symptoms of substance abuse or addiction. Different drugs have varying effects. Stimulants (cocaine, Adderall) tend to cause restlessness and insomnia, while depressants (opioids, alcohol) can cause fatigue.

If you’re concerned that a loved one with GAD is also abusing drugs or alcohol, look for other signs of addiction, such as:

  • unmarked pill bottles or multiple prescriptions from different doctors 
  • loss of interest in social activities and hobbies
  • money problems; borrowing or stealing money to pay for drugs
  • difficulty in relationships
  • spending time with people who do drugs
  • excessive time spent seeking and using drugs or alcohol
  • withdrawal symptoms (vary depending on the substance)

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) & Addiction Risk Factors

More women than men are diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), but the gender disparity is slight among the general population. 

Risk factors that can contribute to the likelihood of you developing GAD are:

  • Genetics: As with many mental disorders, your chances of having GAD may be higher if you have a family member who also has it.
  • Experiences: If you’ve had trauma, negative experiences during childhood, other mental health disorders, panic attacks, or physical illness, these issues can lead to GAD.
  • Personality: People who are pessimistic, timid, or afraid of danger (in an excessive way) are more likely to develop GAD.

All of these risk factors for GAD are risk factors for substance abuse and addiction, too. 

Early Drug Or Alcohol Use

You are also at a higher risk of becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol if you start abusing substances during adolescence. Peer pressure can contribute to early drug or alcohol abuse, as can a lack of family involvement.

Does Addiction Make Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) Worse?

Addiction can make comorbid anxiety worse, and GAD can lead a person to develop a severe comorbidity of addiction. 

When you abuse drugs and alcohol as a form of self-medication, your brain structure changes in an attempt to maintain balance. The brain stops producing neurotransmitters that naturally regulate its activity, so it needs drugs or alcohol to function. 

Withdrawal Symptoms

If you’re addicted and you stop taking drugs, that can throw your brain and body off-balance due to drug or alcohol dependence. 

You’ll have drug or alcohol withdrawal symptoms—which often include anxiety, insomnia, irritability, and other GAD-like side effects that you were taking drugs to avoid. The unpleasant effects cause most people to resume substance abuse.

Co-Occurring Mental Health Disorders

Studies show that people who have both GAD and a substance use disorder (SUD) are more likely to have other psychiatric disorders than people who only have GAD. 

Common mental disorders that co-occur with GAD and addiction include: 

The more mental issues you have, the lower your quality of life, and the more likely you are to develop an addiction that can worsen your circumstances further.

Treating GAD without treating addiction or vice versa is usually futile. Addiction is a mental illness. All aspects of your mental health need to be addressed during addiction treatment to prevent relapse or worsening other related conditions. 

Dual Diagnosis Treatment For Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) & Addiction

A dual diagnosis treatment program for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and addiction works to resolve the root of mental health issues that lead to co-occurring disorders.

Therapy

Psychotherapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), is used to treat both GAD and addiction. CBT helps you discover negative thought patterns that produce destructive behavior, such as crippling worry or substance abuse. It gives you tools to manage your stress in healthier ways.

Medications

GAD may be treated with medications, as well. Antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), are often effective at reducing GAD symptoms. Buspirone (Buspar), an anti-anxiety medication, may also help. 

Benzodiazepines are commonly used for the treatment of anxiety, too. However, they’re also widely abused and may not be the best choice if you’re struggling with substance addiction.

Other Treatment Options

Other dual diagnosis treatment options may include meditation, support groups, exercise, or art therapy. The most effective treatment plan is a combination of evidence-based and experiential therapies tailored to your unique needs. 

It’s vital to address co-occurring disorders in treatment to ensure lasting recovery. To learn more, speak with an Ark Behavioral Health treatment specialist today.

Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
This page does not provide medical advice.
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