The Role of Stress in Addiction

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

It is a biological fact that we are hardwired to find pleasure, satisfaction and fulfillment, or PSF. It is one of our innate drives, which means that finding PSF is a normal function for human beings. This is a quest for normalcy, which is always a significant motivation within addiction – to ‘feel’ normal.

In the case where we do not find PSF, our brain will insist and force us to seek this biological imperative by other means – sometimes with substance abuse. The intensity of this drive grows in relation to the absence of PSF, especially when stress, anxiety and pain become dominant life experiences. Said another way, we don’t find addiction with a person who experiences adequate pleasure in their life, is meaningfully fulfilled and satisfied, and has low stress.

What is Stress?

Stress is experienced because the hormones cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine are released into our brain and body in significant amounts. The ‘fight or flight’ response is the classic example. If these hormones are not present, human beings do not experience stress because the combination is what produces the stress and anxiety experience at the cellular level.

The commonality of stress and its thread throughout the addiction/recovery process is more clearly revealed by measuring its impact on human breathing physiology.-David RubensteinStress is the body’s reaction to stressors. Stress is literally the over-production of stress hormones caused, in large part, by incorrect breathing mechanics. The commonality of stress and its thread throughout the addiction and recovery process is more clearly revealed by measuring its impact on human breathing physiology. In this way, we can use objective measures to more clearly understand the role of stress as it relates to addiction.

Brain Dominance

Brain dominance determines our thinking, emotions and behavior. Stress that is overwhelming, ongoing and oppressive (SOOO) helps to ignite DSB and becomes a quasi-solution in finding a surrogate and temporary form of PSF, but only to the lower brain and at great cost.

The first role of stress in addiction is that it creates a constant brain bias, with the lower brain as dominant. The higher brain, also known as the Pre-Frontal Cortex, has the crucial role of discernment and higher thinking, and it has the ‘abort button,’ which stops us from wrong behavior. Evidence suggests that the higher brain does not possess drug-seeking behavior. The lower brain is a middle region, including the limbic system, and it serves us when danger is near with the ‘fight or flight’ response. It also possesses long-term memory, or trauma, and primitive emotions. As a result, when the lower brain becomes dominant, it’s a case of the ‘monkeys ruling the zoo’ inside our brain.

There is a clear connection between experiences of stress and brain dominance. Low brain dominance equals high, chronic stress and proclivity toward addiction for relief.-David Rubenstein

There is a clear connection between experiences of stress and brain dominance. Low brain dominance equals high, chronic stress and proclivity toward addiction for relief. High brain dominance is stress tolerant and incompatible with addiction. It is clear that addiction recovery treatment must include some means to escape low brain dominance.

Breathing and Brain Dominance

The most fundamental action of human beings is breathing. And as such, it has the largest leverage to cause either high or low brain dominance. We know conclusively that even mild oxygen delivery impairment increases low brain dominance. Fortunately, the reverse is true – high, sustained oxygen delivery results in the low brain receding and high brain dominance emerging. We cannot be other than what our brain state is.

Stress Indicators and Breathing Physiology

The respiratory rate, or speed of breathing per minute, is the first level for measuring stress physiology. High pain, for example, is well studied to evoke fast breathing or hyperventilation. Higher breathing rates are clinically connected with each of the four symptom groups listed below.

  1. Body pain – especially low back, neck and trauma related
  2. Sleep disturbances – upon awakening, the feeling of exhaustion or fatigue
  3. Emotional crisis – intense emotions of fear, anxiety, anger and detachment
  4. Focus and concentration – the inability to acquire or maintain

All of the main stress indicators associated with addiction hinge on the delivery of oxygen – in particular, to the brain. If we look at what happens when oxygen delivery is impaired, we find increases in the above stress indicators and a trail of breathing physiology gone wrong. Before I go any further, the reader should understand the very unforgiving nature of our breathing physiology. It has a set of laws that, when violated, evokes immediate, negative reactions. For example, we know that poor breathing causes body pain and sleep disturbances.

Slow breathing with the diaphragm, or abdominal, shuts down the production of stress hormones and promotes the relation response.-David RubensteinThe type of breathing, or breathing mechanics, is the second level with which we can objectively measure stress physiology. Breathing with the shoulders, moving upward on the inhale, represents the basement of breathing quality and will reliably produce large, sustained amounts of stress hormones. Conversely, slow breathing with the diaphragm, or abdominal, shuts down the production of stress hormones and promotes the relation response. During this response, muscles release their tension which results in pain reduction, blood pressure decline, lower anxiety, as well as blood flow back to the frontal or higher brain. Ultimately, the relation response encourages progress towards PSF.

Breathing Training in Treatment

A clinical focus on measuring, understanding and treating breathing physiology in the recovery environment is a direct approach to treating the chronic stress that is a major trigger of addiction as well as an obstacle in recovery. Stress reactivity, episodic stress and overall stress states are malleable through breathing re-training. And, because improved oxygen delivery is achieved, the brain becomes dramatically more effective in maximizing the benefits from other treatment modalities. In so doing, a new hope for recovery emerges.


What’s Next: Check back for the next article in David Rubenstein’s ongoing series, A New Hope for Recovery, on Pro Talk.

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