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“The Sky Is Falling”: Anxiety and Addiction

Reduce Anxiety

Most of us are familiar with the old folktale about Chicken Little. In one of the more familiar versions, an acorn falls from a tree and hits Chicken Little in the head. Chicken Little decides that the sky must be falling and that the king needs to be warned. He (or she in some versions) sets out, proclaiming “the sky is falling, the sky is falling!” Along the way, he meets other animals who join him. Different morals have been drawn from the fable, among them that you have to have courage and that you shouldn’t believe everything you hear.

The term “Chicken Little” has come to refer to a person who is unreasonably anxious or afraid and who spreads unreasonable fear or anxiety to other people. In psychological terms, Chicken Little was probably suffering from generalized anxiety disorder and had a tendency to catastrophize–that is, to always expect the worst possible outcome from a situation.

What Is Anxiety?

Everyone gets anxious or nervous from time to time–you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t–but an actual anxiety disorder is not just something you experience from time to time and it doesn’t just go away. People who suffer from anxiety tend to be easily irritated and to think the worst of any given situation. They frequently have trouble sleeping, difficulty in making decisions, and are plagued by self-doubt. 

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety can interfere with daily activities and can have a negative effect on job performance, school work, and relationships. Several types of anxiety disorder have been identified. People with generalized anxiety disorder worry excessively about everyday concerns including their health, work, and social interactions. Symptoms include irritability, feeling restless or edgy, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, muscle tension, and a general feeling of worry. Panic disorder is diagnosed when a person has recurring, unexpected panic attacks. Symptoms include heart palpitations, pounding or accelerated heart rate, sweating, trembling or shaking, feeling short of breath or as if you are choking or smothering, and a general feeling of impending doom. Panic attacks can mimic the symptoms of a heart attack and people who have had panic attacks tend to become afraid and worried about the panic attacks themselves.

Phobias are described as “an intense fear of a particular object or circumstance,” but the fear the person experiences is out of proportion to the actual danger. Examples of phobias include fear of heights, flying, spiders, or snakes. If a person has a phobia of a particular object, say spiders, the person will worry a lot about encountering a spider, take extreme measures to avoid spiders, and become extremely and immediately anxious if they come across a spider. Agoraphobia is a specific phobia in which the person is very anxious about two or more of the following situations: using public transportation, being in an open or an enclosed space, crowds or lines, or being alone outside of his or her home. Social anxiety disorder is a fear of being in social or performance situations, and if a person has separation anxiety disorder, he or she will be very fearful of being away from the person that he or she is attached to. Although separation anxiety disorder is often associated with children, adults can suffer from the disorder as well.

Can Anxiety Lead to Addiction?

Anxiety disorders are commonly associated with substance use disorder. If you suffer from an anxiety disorder, you might turn to alcohol or drugs in an effort to lessen the anxiety and make the symptoms more bearable. You may get relief that way, but only in the short-term. In the long-term, drugs or alcohol can actually increase your anxiety, so you can find yourself in a repeating circle: You feel anxious, so you have a few drinks; the alcohol (in the long-term) increases your anxiety, so you have a few more drinks, and on and on it goes. You could end up with two problems–the original anxiety disorder and a resulting alcohol use disorder. A study conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) interviewed more than 43,000 people who had suffered from anxiety in the previous year and found that fifteen percent of them met the criteria for a diagnosis of alcohol use disorder, about twice the rate for the general population.

Treatment for Anxiety

Anxiety disorders are usually treated with psychotherapy, medications, or a combination of both. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is frequently used in treating anxiety because it helps people to see the ways in which their thinking is unhelpful or distorted. Clients learn ways to reframe their thinking with respect to their phobia. 

Treatment for anxiety can also include mindfulness exercises and meditation, both of which calm our minds. Breathing exercises can bring us back to a calm place very quickly. These techniques can retrain our brains, so we realize that we aren’t in actual danger–that the snake dozing in its habitat at the local pet store probably won’t break the glass, escape, and destroy everything in its path.  

Like Chicken Little, when an acorn falls on our head, we need to realize that it’s just an acorn. The sky is not falling.

If you suffer from an anxiety disorder as well as an alcohol or drug addiction, both conditions need to be treated. If only the addiction is treated and not the underlying anxiety, it will be very difficult for treatment to be successful. Enlightened Solutions is a licensed co-occurring treatment center, meaning that we can treat substance use disorders and the mental health issues that so often accompany addiction. Our treatment program is rooted in the 12-Step philosophy. We offer traditional talk therapy and many alternative therapies, including yoga, meditation, acupuncture, chiropractic adjustments, art and music therapy, sound therapy, equine therapy, and horticultural therapy. We customize treatment for each client and our focus is on healing the whole person, not just the addiction. We are located near the southern New Jersey shore. If you are seeking recovery and relief from addiction and anxiety, please call us at (833) 801-5483.