Dealing with Anxiety in Addiction Recovery

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anxiety in addiction recovery

Anxiety and addiction are two of the most common mental health concerns in the United States today. Current estimates suggest that 7.8% of the adult population struggles with a substance use disorder each year, and 19.1% experience an anxiety disorder. Even after achieving abstinence, you can experience significant levels of anxiety in recovery from addiction that interfere with your everyday life – and potentially pose a higher risk for relapse.

Fortunately, there are several methods and treatments that are effective at managing your anxiety symptoms. 

The Link Between Anxiety and Addiction

Anxiety and addiction can feed off each other in a vicious cycle. People may use substances to self-medicate the symptoms of their anxiety, only to feel worse once they wear off. Looking at the other way, using substances for extended periods can also lead to the development of an anxiety disorder. 


The self-medication hypothesis explains the link between anxiety and addiction as a result of using substances to manage the symptoms of a pre-existing anxiety disorder. This can work in the short term but can worsen the symptoms of anxiety over time. In addition, using substances to manage anxiety can lead to a host of other problems, including:

  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Loss of interest in activities outside of substance use
  • Relationship problems
  • Medical issues

 Left unchecked, self-medicating your anxiety with substances can rapidly lead to addiction.

The self-medication hypothesis seems to account for most of the co-occurring anxiety and addiction. Clinical evidence suggests that anxiety disorders exist before substance use disorders in over 75% of cases, whether the person recognizes that their anxiety is a problem or not.

Addiction Causing Anxiety

In turn, addiction can lead to the development of anxiety disorders as well. While the development of anxiety disorders from substance use alone is quite rare, people with a substance use disorder are at much higher risk for exposure to trauma and developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While 6.8% of adults will receive a diagnosis of PTSD in their lifetime, the rate for people with substance use disorders is 36.6%.

If your addiction caused an anxiety disorder, substance use likely became the go-to coping mechanism for managing your symptoms.

Can Sobriety Cause Anxiety?

Sobriety might not cause anxiety directly, but it could reveal anxiety that has been present all along. Anxiety symptoms can show up in many ways, including:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Muscle tension
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Feelings of restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Feeling out of control
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Specific phobias
  • Feelings of impending doom

People who used to mask these feelings with substance use now have to learn to manage them sober. 

In addition, there are several new situations in recovery which could contribute to anxiety. Attending an event where alcohol is served, for instance, is a high-risk relapse situation that could cause feelings of panic. They may also need to learn to navigate social situations sober for the first time and realize that they relied on the social aspect of substance use to get them through their anxiety in the past. 

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6 Ways to Deal with Anxiety in Addiction Recovery

Several methods exist for dealing with anxiety in addiction recovery. These techniques use both physiological and psychological methods for reducing the symptoms of anxiety and can be effective at getting you through a stressful situation.

Grounding Exercises

Grounding exercises are intended to help you get out of your mind and into your body. A common technique to ground yourself in your five senses is the 5-4-3-2-1 technique, where you focus your attention on your five senses in order:

  • Five things you can see
  • Four things you can touch
  • Three things you can hear
  • Two things you can smell
  • One thing you can taste

By focusing on your senses, rather than your racing thoughts, you can substantially reduce the symptoms of anxiety.

Box Breathing

If you’ve been dealing with anxiety for a while, you are probably tired of hearing people tell you to breathe. The physical effects of anxiety can make it extremely difficult to take deep breaths. But if you can exert control over your breath with this box breathing technique, it can slow your heart rate and force your mind to relax.

The box breath technique is relatively simple, and is completed in four steps:

  1. Breathe in for four seconds.
  2. Hold your breath for four seconds.
  3. Exhale for four seconds.
  4. Hold your lungs empty for four seconds.

This technique can be repeated as needed until you feel your symptoms begin to subside.

Calling Your Support Network

Our friends and supporters are often the best sources of calming energy. Calling a member of your support network when you are experiencing anxiety in recovery from addiction can help you to get an outside perspective on the situation, order your thoughts, and help to release the buildup of anxious emotion. This could be a family member that supports you in recovery, a close friend, a mentor, or a sponsor from a 12-step program.

Listening to Music

Music can be a fantastic outlet for unwanted emotions and anxiety. Listening to music has been shown to reduce anxiety in several scientific studies, and is often used in music therapy programs that can help people to manage their mental illness.

Leave the Situation

If you’re able to, sometimes the best solution for an anxiety-inducing situation is to simply leave. Remove yourself from the source of anxiety, and you will begin to feel better straight away. Remember, anxiety in recovery from addiction can create a high-risk situation for relapse, so it’s often better to leave than suffer the consequences.


Exercise is a fantastic tool for dealing with anxiety in addiction recovery. Exercise can help people with anxiety in two ways: it can provide an instant outlet for anxious emotion, and it helps prepare your body for future bouts of anxiety. A regular exercise routine makes your heart and lungs more capable of delivering oxygen and handling an increased heart rate, reducing the effects of anxiety in the future. 

Getting Help

If you’re past the point of simple exercises for your anxiety, don’t be afraid to seek expert help. Psychiatric treatment for anxiety disorders is highly effective and can help you to manage your symptoms and regain your quality of life. Dealing with anxiety in addiction recovery can be incredibly difficult, but you don’t have to do it on your own. ELEVATE Wellness Center offers residential treatment programs for people dealing with anxiety and addiction and can provide the help you need to recover.