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Stress and Addiction: How Are They Really Related?

Stress disrupts normal dopamine neuron function putting an individual at risk for addiction and relapseIt makes sense to us that stress and addiction go hand-in-hand, but how are they really related? There is more than a decade of research available that demonstrates that changes in the synapses of the brain’s reward center relate to addiction behavior. Certainly, most of us who have worked in the addiction field for any length of time have witnessed the strong correlation between stress and an individual’s risk for addiction and relapse. So what is really happening in the body that makes stress such a precursor for addiction and relapse?

To understand stress and addiction, let’s first define stress in physiological terms. Stress is a response in the body that has allowed our species to survive for as long as it has. Different stressors, such as relationships, jobs, trauma, etc. (both real and perceived), elicit different stress responses depending upon a person’s “conditioning” or interaction with his or her environment (think nurture) and the chemical make-up of the brain (think nature). Stress activates the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis and the sympathetic nervous system. This is what sets forth the fight or flight reaction in us. The stress response allows the body to make necessary physiological and metabolic changes required to cope with the demands of one’s environment.

So how does stress act as a precursor for addiction and relapse? According to new research by Brown University, “acute stress has marked and long-lasting effects on the plasticity […] of the synapses on dopamine neurons.” This happens in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) in the brain, a region that the researchers were able to identify as the exact place in the brain where the neural steps leading to addiction and relapse take place. Stress disrupts the healthy chemical fluctuations involving dopamine neurons, leading to stress-induced risk for addiction and relapse.

At ExecuCare, we understand the important role that dopamine plays in the relationship between stress and addiction.  It’s why our treatment utilizes nutritionally assisted detox for neurotransmitter restoration that repairs the damage done to the neuro-receptor sites in the brain as a result of chronic use. Neurotransmitter repair is the key to lasting success in any detox and recovery program.

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