Latest developments in causes and treatments



The Relationship Between Stress and Addiction

There is a well-established, scientific link between stress and obesity. The cortisol level of a majority of clinically obese people is elevated, according to a research team reporting in the journal Psychological Issues.

The obesity pandemic coincides with an increase in factors that enhance cortisol production, such as chronic stress, consumption of food with a high glycemic index, and a reduced amount of sleep.

The increase in cortisol is measured through scalp hair. Echoing the work of Dr. Robert A. Pretlow, publisher of AddictionNews, the trio of authors from the Obesity Center CGG, University Medical Center of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, identify a “vicious circle” where stress and obesity interact with each other.

The displacement of stress may be the uniting factor behind all addictions, chemical or behavioral. The presence of stressful situations results in an increase in brain energy that will be displaced one way or another, through healthy or unhealthy activities. The addiction derives from the relief of displacing stress and can take many forms: substance abuse, self-abuse, online gaming, shopping, skin picking, and hair pulling.

Techniques for managing stress are an integral part of moderating any addiction. With chemical addictions, the first stress comes from withdrawal. Breaking the physical addiction usually does not take long, but breaking the psychological addiction can take forever when the stresses that lead to addiction do not disappear.

The authors of a large survey by the Yale Interdisciplinary Stress Center followed recovering drug addicts and came to the sobering conclusion “that the drug-craving state marked by increasing distress and compulsive motivation for [the] drug along with poor stress regulatory responses results in an enhanced susceptibility to addiction relapse.” Without good stress management techniques, the likelihood of relapse is much greater.

Many of the guides to managing stress available on the internet are published by recovery centers and show a distinct lack of scientific research. A good guide to the benefits of stress management backed by solid research comes from PsychCentral. They point to scientific studies showing improvements in blood pressure, heart rate, improved sleep, improved mental health, and fewer tension headaches, among other documented benefits.

Written by Steve O’Keefe. First published November 29, 2023.


“Stress and Obesity: Are There More Susceptible Individuals?” Psychological Issues, April 2018.

“Chronic Stress, Drug Use, and Vulnerability to Addiction,” Addiction Reviews, 2008.

“A Unified Theory of Addiction,” poster presented at Collaborative Perspectives on Addiction Conference, March 2023.

“6 Benefits of Managing Your Stress Better,” PsychCentral, July 2022.

Image Copyright: Spectral.



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