Does Stress Cause Addiction?

Man in bar with a beer
Ty Downing/Photolibrary/Getty

In the past, addiction was thought of as resulting from the ingestion of an “addictive” substance, such as heroin or alcohol. These substances were considered to have almost magical powers, rendering the user powerless over their consumption, regardless of context and circumstances such as the stress being experienced by the user.  The DSM-IV definition of substance dependence focused on the physiological effects of these substances, and the processes of tolerance and withdrawal as central to addiction.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

However, since the 1970s, research has started to emerge that paints a different picture of stress and addiction. Not only has it become clear that some people taking “addictive” substances do not become addicted, but also that seemingly benign behaviors, not involving ingesting substances, have started to be recognized as addictive, including problem gambling, shopping addiction, food addiction, computer addiction, and even sex addiction. And more and more, the set and setting and other contextual issues, such as the stress being experienced by the individual taking the addictive substance or engaging in the addictive behavior, are being recognized as having an impact on whether or not people become addicts.  These more recent discoveries are reflected in the DSM-V.

How Addiction Is Used to Deal With Stress

Addiction often appears to be an attempt to deal with stress in a way that doesn’t quite work out for the individual. While you may get some temporary relief from stress through the drug or behavior you become addicted to, that relief is short-lived, so you need more in order to continue coping with stress. And because many addictions bring with them further stress, such as the withdrawal symptoms experienced when a drug wears off, yet more of the addictive substance or behavior is needed to cope with the additional stress involved.

From this perspective, it is clear that some people are more vulnerable to addictions than others, simply by the amount of stress in their lives. For example, there is now a well-established link between childhood abuse, whether physical, emotional or sexual abuse and later development of addictions to drugs and behaviors. Childhood abuse is extremely stressful for the child but continues to cause problems as that child matures into an adult, with consequential problems with relationships and self-esteem. Not everyone who was abused as a child develops an addiction, and not everyone with addiction was abused in childhood.

The vulnerability of survivors of child abuse to later addiction is a clear example of the connection between stress and addiction.

Using Stress Management to Overcome Addiction

Although stress, on its own, does not actually cause addiction — plenty of people are under stress and do not become an addiction — it certainly has a significant role for many people. Recognition of the role of stress in addiction developing, and of the importance of stress management in preventing and overcoming addiction, is crucial in helping people avoid the suffering that addiction can bring, both to those affected by addictions and their loved ones. Our stress site provides many strategies and tools that are relevant to equipping you with healthier ways of coping with stress, whether or not you have developed an addiction.

And it is never too early to teach children and young people good stress management skills, so they are less inclined to become addicted in the first place.

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • Cornelius, J., Kirisci, L., Reynolds, M., & Tarter, R. "Does stress mediate the development of substance use disorders among youth transitioning to young adulthood?" American Journal of Drug & Alcohol Abuse. 40: 3, 225-229. 2014.
  • Koob, G. "Addiction is a reward deficit and stress surfeit disorder." Frontiers in Psychiatry, 4, Aug 1, 2013.
  • Schwabe, L., Dickinson, A., & Wolf, O. "Stress, habits, and drug addiction: A psychoneuroendocrinological perspective." Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology 19(1),  53-63. 2011.
  • Sinha, R. & Jastreboff, A. "Stress as a common risk factor for obesity and addiction." Biological Psychiatry, 73:9, 827-835. 2013.

By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.