The Science of Stress and Addiction


Stress, or a stressor, is anything that disrupts biological homeostasis and the body’s stress-response is a means of reestablishing balance. Stressors can be physical or psychological, acute or chronic, and the product of internal or external stimulation. A stress response is characterized by the rapid mobilization of energy and heightened cognitive and sensory skill partnered with a reduction in “rest-and-digest” bodily functions like digestion, reproduction, tissue repair, and immunity. Collectively known as the “fight-or-flight” response, the human stress response was the positive adaptation of our prehistoric ancestors whom were subject to the constant threat of hungry predators and a hostile environment.

Unfortunately, in the context of our relatively safe and comfortable communities where physical threats are few and far between, the previously beneficial “fight-or-flight” stress response can unleash a physiological cascade of events that can be more damaging than the stressor itself. Ultimately, chronic activation of the stress response increases the risk of getting diseases that make you sick.

The Master Gland

First things first, the human stress response is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, which can be broken down into the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. The sympathetic arm of the autonomic nervous system kicks into action during emergencies and helps mediate vigilance, arousal, activation and mobilization. The parasympathetic arm of the autonomic nervous system plays the opposing role and mediates calm, vegetative activities like growth, tissue repair and energy storage. These two systems work in opposition and bring about opposite results.

The brain is the “master gland” of the autonomic nervous system because it can mobilize a specific response to stress in one of two ways – through neural stimulation or the secretion of hormones. The neural route stimulates the release of hormones by stimulating a “specific” response from a certain gland. The hormonal route sends a chemical message through the bloodstream that elicits a “non-specific” response throughout the body. The “non-specific” stress response is regulated by the hypothalamus, located at the base of the brain posterior to the brain stem, which contains a huge array of releasing and inhibiting hormones. These hormones act upon the pituitary gland to encourage the release of hormones that control the secretion of other hormones from peripheral glands, mostly the adrenals, located at various points around the body.

The Primary Stress Hormone

Hormones of particular importance to the sympathetic nervous system and the “fight-or-flight” response include epinephrine, norepinephrine, glucocorticoids (cortisol, for example) and glucagon. Epinephrine and norepinephrine are the chemical messengers that quickly kick various organs into gear (within seconds) and glucocorticoids back up this activity over the course of minutes or hours. These three hormones are released by the adrenals and account for a large percentage of what happens in the body in response to stress. Glucagon is released by the pancreas and helps raise circulating levels of the sugar glucose (epinephrine, norepinephrine and glucocorticoids contribute to this action as well), which is essential in activating muscles and increasing sensory awareness in times of acute stress.

Epinephrine, norepinephrine and glucagon are vital to the stress-response, healthy or otherwise, but cortisol is considered to be the primary “stress hormone” and may have the largest impact upon health. As previously mentioned, cortisol is the responsible for continued mobilization of stored nutrients (stimulating the breakdown of adipose and muscle tissue to serve as the raw material in gluconeogenesis) to sustain energy production during the “fight-or-flight” sympathetic stress response. This helps us move and think quickly when our lives are in danger. Cortisol also has a hand in controlling mood and feelings of wellbeing, immune system function and inflammation, blood vessel health and blood pressure, and in the maintenance of connective tissue. Think happy, healthy with beautiful hair, skin and nails.

To learn more about cortisol and how it can influence health and wellbeing, The Cortisol Connection by Shawn Talbott is an amazing resource.

To the Addict

Of primary importance to us here at Twelve Wellness and those recovering from addiction, the stress-cortisol story gets a little more complicated. According to a relatively recent study published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology, alcohol use and abuse interacts with the body’s stress response in at least three ways.

  • Ingestion of alcohol causes an acute cortisol response.
  • Long-term abuse of alcohol alters the secretion of cortisol.
  • Altered cortisol release seen in alcoholics may be genetic and may contribute to the propensity for alcohol and drug abuse in future generations.

Collectively, this means that abstinent alcoholics, heroin addicts, and users of ecstasy have a blunted (hypo-responsive) stress response that increases the likelihood of addiction and contributes to the likelihood relapse in response to stress or “cues” like alcohol or drug exposure, which they may pass on to their children.

Fortunately, according to the same study presented above, “the usual…[cortisol]…pattern is reestablished if abstinence is maintained,” to the tune of at least 4 weeks post-withdrawal.

Managing/Overcoming Stress

Taking an active approach to recovery suggests the development of a stress management routine in order to reduce the body’s desire to release cortisol and improve its ability to quickly minimize stress when it does occur. According to Robert Sapolsky, author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, simple strategies for coping with stress emphasize the importance of managing feelings of control, predictability, outlets for frustration, social connectedness, and the perception of whether things are worsening or improving. This may be accomplished through exercise, meditation, social interaction, and religious or spiritual activity. However, these principles of stress management work only in certain circumstances for certain types of people with certain types of problems. The good news is that once you decide you sincerely want to change, the mere act of making an effort to cope with or reduce stress can do wonders. You’ve recognized there is a problem, you’ve decided to do something to address said problem.

For more on meditation, check out Healing the Addict Brain with Mindfulness Meditation

Again, effective stress management encourages the following:

  • Hope for the best and let that dominate most of your emotions, but at the same time let one small piece of you prepare for the worst.
  • Seek control in the face of present stressors but do not try to control things that have already come to pass.
  • Seek predictable, accurate information.
  • Find that outlet for your frustrations and do it regularly.
  • Find sources of social affiliation and support.

All is not lost, my friends. Keep on the spiritual path to recovery and all our problems shall be overcome.

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© Matthew Lovitt and TwelveWellness, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matthew Lovitt and TwelveWellness with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.