Medically Reviewed

The Link Between Teen Anxiety and Substance Abuse

2 min read · 2 sections

The Link Between Teen Anxiety and Substance AbuseThe life of a teenager fluctuates between polar opposites: the most awesomely great day can be followed by the most painfully mortifying one.  A proud moment carrying a sense of real achievement can be dissolved by gut-wrenching uncertainty.  A teen’s outlook on life can be far from rosy; it can often be riddled with bouts of stress and anxiety. What’s a kid to do to ease the troubled mind? For many, drugs provide a dangerous remedy that can deepen troubles and trap the unwary. While healthy options exist, for many teens the availability of alcohol and/or drugs provides convenient relief.

Why Do Teens Start Abusing Drugs?

The National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse XVII: Teens, prepared by the Center on Addiction , reported the following:

”Nearly half of teens (46%) say they experience high stress . Compared to teens who say their stress level is low, teens who experience high stress are:

  • Nearly three times more likely to use marijuana
  • Twice as likely to use alcohol
  • Almost twice as likely to use tobacco “1

The report also states that ”the number one source of stress for teens is academic pressure, including the pressure to do well in school and get into college.”

Sadly, not everyone can get the “easy A”. Hard work followed by unsatisfactory results can drive adults and teens to disappointment.  As a teen’s perspective is so much more limited than a well-adjusted adult, such disappointment can border on disaster.

Beyond academic pressures, a teen’s life includes many other anxiety triggers. Social stress, family discord, world events, traumatic events, and significant life changes can all play a part.2

I Just Want to Feel Better…

Triggered by stress and anxiety, our “fight or flight” response throws our physiology into overdrive. Beyond a simple sense of dread, our hearts beat faster, we breathe harder and faster, our circulatory system propels blood to the arms and legs, and we may feel cold, clammy, and even nauseous.

Put simply, we don’t feel good.

Perhaps smoking a joint or taking a hit of something stronger will do the trick?  Trick is the operative word here – the real “relaxation response” we crave is not the temporary and potentially addicting high driven by drug use.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry,

“The same mechanism that turns on the stress response can turn it off… this ‘relaxation response’ includes decreased heart and breathing rate and a sense of well-being. Teens that develop a ‘relaxation response’ and other stress management skills feel less helpless and have more choices when responding to stress.”3

Teaching teens to deal with these frightening and anxiety-provoking feelings is critical for safe passage to young adulthood, and as the Center on Addiction explains, individuals who do not use alcohol, tobacco, or misuse drugs before the age of 21 are more likely to never do so in their lifetime.

Research Sources:

  1. Center on Addiction. (2012). National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse XVII: Teens.
  2. Hurley, Katie. (2018). 6 Hidden Signs of Teen Anxiety.
  3. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. (2019). Stress Management and Teens.

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