THE VICIOUS CYCLE OF ANXIETY AND ADDICTION

Lisa Strohman, PhD, JD

One of the worst contributors to addiction, creating a vicious cycle with abuse, is anxiety. The question is which comes first: the crushing stress of anxiety creating a demand for relief or an addiction that ultimately causes the symptoms of anxiety?

Regardless of the answer, those in the addiction world are well aware of the tumultuous relationship addiction and anxiety have with each other. With a lifetime prevalence of nearly 30 percent of the U.S. population suffering from an anxiety disorder and 10 percent struggling with some level of substance abuse, it is safe to say that if we aren’t suffering from either, we certainly know someone that is.

Anxiety
The reality is that we all experience some level of anxiety because it is a normal part of life. For example, most experience anxious feelings when faced with a problem at work or when making an important life decision. However, having an anxiety disorder involves more than temporary worry or fear. An anxiety disorder does not go away and can get worse over time, often interfering with life in areas such as job, school, and/or relationships. Professionally speaking, an anxiety disorder is characterized by a state of excessive uneasiness and apprehension, often accompanied with compulsive behavior or panic attacks.

Anxiety and Addiction

There have been many articles written about the relationship between anxiety and addiction as it relates to alcohol and/or drugs. In fact, there is a very strong correlation between alcohol and drug addiction and general anxiety disorder. This makes sense because those that consistently feel uncomfortable can find respite in a substance. However, it is not long before there is a paradoxical effect that turns the short-term comfort of the substance into increased symptoms of anxiety when the individual discontinues use. This in turn leads to more abuse in more chronic settings. Why this strong relationship exists relates to our genetics.

The Brain’s Role in Anxiety and Addiction

Substances directly or indirectly target the brain’s reward system by flooding the circuit with dopamine. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter present in regions of the brain that regulate emotion, motivation, and feelings of pleasure. When activated naturally, at normal levels, this system serves as our reward center increasing these behaviors. Of course, flooding the system with drugs produces abnormally high euphoric effects, which more strongly reinforce the behavior of drug use. With substances the release occurs almost immediately (when drugs are smoked or injected), and the effects can last much longer than those produced by natural rewards such as sex. We know that the effect of such a powerful reward strongly motivates people to return to the substance again and again. We also know that without the continued use the individual will often suffer from increased anxiety as a result of the absence of the substance.

Anxiety and Technology Addiction

Living in the digital age, we have a newly identified issue that focuses on the levels of anxiety related to technology addiction. As an expert in this field, it comes as no surprise that there is a relationship with the level of anxiety as it pertains to an individual’s technology usage. It also doesn’t surprise me to find that when studies specifically looked to identify whether there are similar findings with those dealing with substance abuse, the results were nearly identical. People who suffer from anxiety can find respite in time connected to a device that demands nothing in return or alternatively. Alternately, they will find increased levels of anxiety after disconnecting from this seemingly innocuous world. The bigger problem is that most people don’t realize that they are falling pray to an addiction. It is not uncommon for people to joke with friends that they are addicted to social media, or that they need to have their technology hardwired into their brain. Take the term technology out and put in heroin or alcohol or (whatever drug you want), the feelings are much the same. Yet, we would never joke about being addicted to heroin. What is so devastatingly apparent is that most people are using technology without realizing that it can be a substitute for drugs, and produce the exact same pleasure pathways as drugs. They don’t consider that it is also a gateway to other addictions such as pornography, gambling, sex, and drugs. As a clinical psychologist, I fear that we are mindlessly entering another cycle of abuse with increased anxieties due to the cognitive and emotional aspects that technology allows.

Repeated use permanently rewires the brain

The more time spent online, the more you are rewiring your brain in ways that you are unaware. Extensive time online creates a pathway for reward over and over. We see this happening with social media use. Research shows that people are increasingly entering treatment for anxiety and stress, and it is unclear why they are starting to feel this without a predisposition in their family. What many don’t realize is it only takes four hours of exposure to technology a week for the brain to start structurally changing.
The average person is spending more than 10 hours a day con-nected, which is permanently rewiring the brain to need the reward (tech time) in order to reduce the anxiety.

Technology addiction can lead to other addictions
If someone admits to an addiction to technology and wants to stop using it, they must find something else to fill their time and prepare to feel the effects of loss from that constant stream of dopamine in their system. While it may sound simple, most people can’t seem to put down their devices or log off. Without a screen and keyboard or game controller, they quickly become bored. As a result, they seek out other things to increase the dopamine surge that they are missing. This often leads to other addictions such as drugs or alcohol, or other behavioral addictions such as sex or gambling.

Typically, when treating someone with a substance addiction we say recovery requires total abstinence. Unfortunately, that is not possible with technology, not in this world. Therefore, the vicious cycle between addiction and anxiety will persist until we can find a way to learn to balance. The resurgence of anxiety we are seeing as a result of increasing technology use needs to be recognized, and treatment must be administered by a professional in order for those struggling to learn how to manage it effectively.

Dr. Lisa Strohman is a Scottsdale based Clinical Psychologist and the founder and director of Technology Wellness Center, which provides online resources and expert support to parents. Her first book, Unplug: Raising Kids in a Technology Addicted World was published earlier this year. Dr. Lisa frequently speaks at schools and to parent groups on topics related to children and technology and what parents and educators need to know. She is also a regular guest on Dr. Drew’s radio show and frequently interviewed by the media about technology and child safety. Dr. Lisa’s most important job is mother to her daughter and son, both now in elementary school. To learn more about Dr. Lisa visit technologywellnesscenter.com