Substance Dependence and Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Many people with generalized anxiety disorder try to self medicate

drinking alcohol

For many people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), the constant worry and stress are overwhelming. If you struggle with GAD, you likely have tried many different things to help soothe your anxiety. However, some methods of coping with GAD symptoms can be very harmful. 

What Is Substance Dependence?

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness, 5th edition, the reference material healthcare providers use in treating mental disorders, substance dependence is common among those with mental illnesses like GAD.

If you have GAD, you likely worry about your anxiety affecting your daily life. You can dread the onset of an anxiety attack which can be just as severe as the attack itself. This constant stress can impact your family life, your career and your physical health. 

Many people with GAD and other mental disorders turn to substances to treat their own symptoms. They get accustomed to relying on those substances to cope with the anxiety. Without these items as a crutch, the person may struggle with withdrawal symptoms or panic.

Examples of Substance Dependence

Substance dependence can include taking more than the prescribed dosage of a medication, drinking alcohol or using drugs. It often begins very simply but can escalate quickly, dramatically impacting your life. 

For instance, let's say you have severe anxiety about speaking in front of others. However, in your new job, you're required to give regular presentations to your team. In order to take the edge off and calm your nerves, you may take an extra anti-anxiety pill or sneak out at lunch to have an alcoholic drink to help soothe yourself. You do feel calmer during your presentation, so taking an extra pill or having a drink becomes routine. 

However, over time, that one drink or one extra pill becomes insufficient to calm yourself. You may need to take more pills or have more drinks to get the same results. Without taking these substances, you feel even more nervous or may even experience physical withdrawal symptoms like trembling or lack of focus. 


In order to treat your substance dependence, your anxiety must be treated at the same time. If you don't already, find a therapist who specializes in generalized anxiety who can help you manage your symptoms. 

As part of the recovery process, you will work with your therapist to learn and practice healthy coping skills to manage your anxiety without relying on other substances. Finding sober ways to de-escalate your emotions can help end your reliance on pills or liquor and end the cycle of substance abuse. 

In addition, your therapist will work with you to handle the sources of anxiety to help prevent symptoms from starting in the first place. Over time, you may find you have a greater sense of calm and security in handling situations that would have triggered your anxiety previously. GAD may never go away completely, but with therapy, practice and appropriate use of medications as prescribed, you can manage GAD and eliminate your substance dependence. 

View Article Sources
  • "Generalized Anxiety Disorder". Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illnesses, 5th edition. American Psychiatric Association, 2013.