Scientists have gained insight into the biology of those who turn to the pipe when life is getting them down. Recent studies have found biological connections between stress and drug abuse and addiction. Those who experience above average stress levels tend to be more susceptible to drug abuse and addiction.
When people are under stress, their bodies produce a hormone called glucocorticoid. Excess amounts of this hormone can lead to abuse of addictive substances, researchers found.
Glucocorticoid stimulates the same pathways in the brain that are affected by addictive drugs such as cocaine. The pathway consists of nerve cells responsible for the release of dopamine, commonly associated with pleasurable events.
High levels of glucocorticoids can be traced to genetics or chronic stress. Those who feel they lack control over their lives and their stressors are the most susceptible to drug addiction.
Michael J. Bohn, UW-Madison clinical associate professor of psychiatry and medical director of the Gateway Recovery Program for Substance Abuse, said the relationship between stress and drug abuse is bi-directional.
“An increase of uncontrollable stressors can lead to an increase in drug abuse and the same can be said for drug abuse,” Bohn said. “If one increases their drug abuse, their daily stressors may also increase.”
According to Bohn, drug abuse is dependent upon genetics. Between 50 and 65 percent of those at risk for developing drug dependence are genetically predisposed to addiction. Several genes have been identified as directly related to drug abuse.
Researchers have not determined which stressors have the greatest effect on drug abuse; however, glucocorticoids are produced in response to both chronic and acute stress.
For many, this information comes as no surprise.
“People seek outlets to relieve their stress, and drugs are instant gratification,” UW sophomore Rebecca Schepps said. “The drugs temporarily relieve your stress, and it’s a quick way out.”
Because it is difficult to gauge when one will be under stress, those who are at high risk of addiction should avoid exposure to drugs in any circumstances.
According to Bohn, those with genetic links to drug abuse should seek medical attention quickly if they feel they might use the drugs as treatment.
“If a family has a history of high stress, and/or other drug-related problems, those people should not use drugs because the level of addiction is high, and it is quite risky,” Bohn said.