Phobias and Substance Abuse

If you suffer from an unreasonable, long-lasting fear of a situation that, for most people, is not – or shouldn’t be – frightening, you may have a phobia. According to CNN Health, if you experience a phobia, the results of the intense fear can affect how you think, and your body can even manifest physical symptoms. According to the same report, phobias can often result from the abuse of drugs or alcohol in order to deal with the stress of the phobia.

Specifics of Phobias

PhobiasPhobias are nothing to be ashamed of. It is estimated, as related by the National Institute of Health, that 19.2 million Americans suffer from some kind of phobia. Phobias are not indicative of bravery or courage either. For instance, a person might be totally at ease on the edge of a skyscraper’s lookout perch, but because he suffers from claustrophobia – the fear of enclosed spaces — he can’t ride in an elevator. Another person may have no problem working in her very small office, but if a spider finds its way in, her arachnophobia – fear of spiders – will prevent her from entering the room at all. The fear is real. In fact, it is so real that the individual may suffer great amounts of anxiety or even a panic attack as a result.

One type of phobia that is specifically linked to substance abuse is known as social anxiety disorder. When a person suffering from this phobia is faced with socializing in groups, they can immediately begin to feel stressful about the event. The symptoms of this disorder, as listed in the same NIH information as general phobias, include:

  • A fear of being watched by others
  • A fear that others in the social setting are judging them
  • The growing fear, beginning weeks before the scheduled event, affects work or school responsibilities
  • Difficulty in making or keeping friendships
  • Sweating, nausea, stuttering and shaking

Phobias are not hereditary necessarily, but there are indications that genes are involved to some degree. They can develop as early as adolescence, and it doesn’t matter whether the individual is male or female.

Because of the high anxiety levels and the often co-occurring disorders of depression or other anxiety issues — as stated in a 12-year study on the influence of co-morbid conditions on recovery published by the National Institute of Health – some individuals self-medicate their fears with the use of alcohol or drugs of abuse. This can lead to tolerance to the specific drugs and ultimately addiction. In addition to the long-term risk of addiction, those who suffer from social phobia, according to the Mayo Clinic, can also be at risk of low self-esteem and even suicide.

Getting treatment for phobias, particularly if you suspect that your affected loved one may also suffer from substance abuse, is important for their emotional and physical well-being.

Phobias and Co-Occurring Disorders Can Occur for a Variety of Reasons

An article in Medical News Today has cited the University of Manitoba, in Canada, concerning a link between alcohol and substance abuse, social phobia and general anxiety symptoms. The report states that those individuals who used drugs or alcohol to self-medicate their general anxiety, specifically, were more likely to develop addictions than those who did not self-mediate but who did use drugs or alcohol for other reasons. The researchers ultimately determined that, based on their findings, treating the issues of self-medicating might lead to a “significant decrease” in the co-morbid conditions of substance abuse and social phobia.

Other causes for phobias, as presented by an article from BBC News, include chemical imbalances, glandular issues, genetics, stress and even children environmental issues.

Treatment for Co-Occurring Substance Abuse and Phobia

Woman with PhobiaOne of the first ways to treat phobias, according to researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, is to talk about them. Medline Plus, an information service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine, reports that when an individual verbalizes their fear – in this case, a phobia of spiders – they are changing how their brain interprets the fear factor. A group of individuals afraid of spiders were divided into three sections. One group was asked to approach a large tarantula and to vocalize their fear. A second group was told to approach the spider and verbally downplay their fear. The final group was told to talk about something else, as a distraction to their fear. A week later, the test was repeated and the group that admitted their fear was significantly more capable of approaching the spider. They got closer to the spider than the week before and their physical symptoms of anxiety were lessened.

This is just one example of the treatment of anxiety. Other treatments include various medications, such as antidepressants, serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), tricyclics and beta blockers. From a non-medication standpoint, the National Institute of Mental Health suggests that psychotherapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy, can be helpful.

The important goal of treatment for any anxiety condition, including phobias, during the course of substance abuse treatment is to reduce the anxiety and thereby the likelihood of relapse. Regardless of which came first, the anxiety disorder or the addiction, the two can play off each other. One may use alcohol or drugs to self-medicate the anxiety, such as having a few drinks or taking drugs to quell the fear of social situations. This can then lead to increased tolerance to the effects of the drugs or alcohol, which can in turn lead to a more significant and repeated series of relapses.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a form of evidence-based psychological treatment, as described by the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies. It is designed to develop coping skills to specific situations. An individual thinks a certain way about aspects of their life, and they react to those thoughts with specific actions. An example might be a young man who is painfully shy and suffering from social phobia is forced to attend a wedding reception. For weeks prior to the wedding, he is anxious and nervous. He can’t sleep. He can’t eat. As a recovery alcoholic, he knows that he shouldn’t drink, but a couple of cocktails won’t really hurt him, he thinks. Over the course of time before the wedding, he begins drinking more alcohol – just to sleep and quell his anxiety – until the evening of the wedding. He is depressed perhaps because he has broken his sobriety. He is terrified to the point that his hands are sweating and his mouth is dry. He’s thirsty, and he orders a drink. It’s a wedding, a party, so he orders another drink. Before long, he has given up on his sobriety and his addiction causes him to drink well past an acceptable level.

Through cognitive behavioral therapy, this same individual can learn much better ways of handling not only the temptation to drink, but the overwhelming fear associated with his social anxiety disorder. A trained therapist will work with someone suffering like this to help them learn new and better ways to think and healthier reactions, or coping skills, to deal with the situations life throws at us each and every day. This type of therapy is not open-ended, like traditional talk therapy which can go on for years in some cases. CBT is designed to last from between six to 20 weeks, depending upon the issues faced and the individual’s progress.

Treatment Can Help Phobias and Substance Abuse Issues

If you are suffering from an irrational fear that manifests in physical and emotional symptoms, please call us to find out how we can help. Turning to drugs or alcohol, whether you have an existing addiction issue or you afraid you may develop one, is never a good idea. Facing your fear with the support and guidance of a trained professional can help you move past the issues of anxiety to reach a place of calm and understanding in your life. Call now.