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How Work Stress Fuels Substance Abuse

Americans place a great value on productivity and efficiency in the workplace. At the same time, this culture often downplays the importance of leisure, relaxation and family time. The average employee in the United States gets the equivalent of ten days off per year, while the average worker in the United Kingdom gets twice that amount.1 Even when on vacation, Americans often take work with them and use their smartphones and laptop computers.

Chronic stress disrupts the balance between our jobs and personal lives. We worry about work when we are with our spouses or children. We compulsively check our email when we’re on vacation. With such an emphasis on staying busy and keeping in touch with the workplace, is it any wonder that work-related stress has become a major public health problem?

In an effort to deal with stress, many workers attempt to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol—a mistake that can spiral into a substance abuse problem and other issues. If you or your loved ones need help with job stress or chemical dependency, stress reduction training combined with treatment can help you break free from this problematic cycle.

What Is Stress?

In its most basic form, our response to stress is a survival mechanism. When you’re faced with danger, either real or imaginary, the systems in your body get ready for self-defense (the fight response) or escape (the flight response). Whether we choose to fight or flee as a way to save ourselves, our bodies release powerful hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.2

Stress causes a variety of changes in the body such as:

  • Accelerated heart rate
  • High blood pressure
  • Faster breathing
  • Rapid eye movement
  • Heightened senses
  • Increased physical strength
  • Increased alertness
  • Sweating

Chronic stress can also cause problems with digestion, metabolism, sleep, fertility and immunity. People who are tense and anxious all the time tend to get sick more often, have trouble conceiving children, and suffer from stomach ulcers or heartburn.

However, stress isn’t always a negative phenomenon. You’ve probably experienced the positive, self-affirming form of stress when you taken on a difficult project and completed it successfully. On the other hand, you’ve also seen the negative form of stress when you have been pressured to finish a project in an unrealistic timeframe without adequate resources. Unfortunately, many of us experience the negative form of stress more often than the positive.Negative stress can make us feel exhausted, depressed and drained of energy.

If you need to have a drink, smoke a joint or take a pill to get through your day, you’ve reached a level of work-related stress that’s potentially dangerous. Substance abuse at work can lead to injuries, legal problems, loss of employment and even death. At this point, stress management and rehab aren’t optional luxuries — they’re a matter of survival.

Health Risks of Stress

We all know the psychological consequences of stress: irritability, depression, anxiety, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating. But the repercussions of stress affect every system in the body, contributing to chronic pain and disease. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) qualifies stress as an occupational hazard that increases the risk of a number of serious health problems:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Migraine headaches
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Muscle strain
  • Back problems
  • Mood disorders
  • Anxiety disorders3

Work-related stress has also been linked to an increased risk of substance abuse. Smoking, drinking and using drugs are often coping mechanisms for workers under constant pressure. But these forms of self-medication only harm your body and mind. In addition, substance abuse creates a tremendous strain on personal relationships, breaking up marriages, families and friendships.
Stress management is a central part of an effective addiction treatment program for people struggling with the effects of high-pressure jobs. In order to recover from self-defeating behaviors, you must replace those behaviors with positive, sober activities that nourish your body and spirit. If you or someone close to you is battling addiction and job stress, a professional rehab program can offer the help you need to rebuild a healthy, balanced life.

The Trap of Self-Medication

Just as compulsive work is a common practice in the US, so is the use of drugs as a way to manage work-related stress. We meet our coworkers for happy hour to hash over a hard day at the office. But casual substance abuse can quickly devolve into chemical dependency and addiction. The same substances that we once relied on to help us relax, sleep or recharge our energy can turn against us, destroying our physical and emotional health.

There is a common misconception that most alcoholics and drug addicts are jobless and homeless. According to statistics from the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence, approximately 70% of the estimated 14.8 million Americans who use illegal drugs are employed.4

While some of these workers turned to substance abuse for personal reasons, many people use drugs or alcohol to cope with the pressures of their jobs. But substance abuse ultimately makes occupational stress worse and vice versa. The use of drugs and alcohol can lead to poor job performance, absenteeism, disciplinary action and ultimately unemployment.

Finding a Work-Life Balance

In recovery, the addict or alcoholic must learn how to find a balance between life and work. This process isn’t easy, especially for workaholics who may be equally hooked on job stress and drugs. Stress provides a rush of adrenaline that can be just as addictive as the rush of taking narcotics. How can you recognize the need to reach out for help for yourself or someone else?Look for these important signs:

  • Problems at work such as the threat of suspension or termination
  • Problems at home such as physical altercations or threats of divorce
  • Financial difficulties such as the lack of money to pay for basic living expenses
  • Health problems including insomnia, heartburn, and headaches
  • Low self-worth, despair, hopelessness or a feeling that life is unmanageable

When you get clean, it will not only help you avoid the devastating consequences of substance abuse;your job performance will improve too. You will start to feel better both physically and mentally as you rebuild your life. As you explore and practice stress reduction techniques like meditation, exercise therapy, yoga and massage, you will teach yourself to find inner peace in these healing activities.

Call our toll-free number now to learn how you and your loved ones can benefit from our approach to recovery. Please don’t wait another day—you can start the recovery process today.

1 Mazie, Steven. “Why Do Americans Have Less Vacation Time Than Anyone Else?”, Accessed April 2, 2018.

2 Heshmat, Shahram. “Stress and Addiction.” Psychology Today, May 10, 2017.

3Stress.” United States Department of Labor, Accessed April 2, 2018.

4 “Drugs and Alcohol In The Workplace.” National Council on Alcohol And Drug Dependence, Accessed April 2, 2018.