Stress & Drug Abuse

There is a strong link between stress and drug abuse in teens. Youth may feel a lot of stress during their teenage years and this increases their risk for drug abuse. Teens and their parents can learn ways to reduce or manage stress, which improves a teen's overall health and well-being and makes them less likely to abuse drugs.

The teenage years bring a lot of changes, and these changes be stressful. Teens may worry about school, friends, family, extracurricular activities, and the future, as well as the many upheavals and disasters in the world. Teens who have been exposed to some sort of trauma, like abuse, disasters, accidents, or violence in their home or neighborhood, may even develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Being under a lot of stress can increase the risk that a teen will use drugs. In fact, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, stress is one of the major factors leading to teen drug abuse and to relapse in recovering drug users.

While stress is a natural response to problems teens may face, and can be helpful in small doses, long-term stress causes a lot of negative mental and physical health problems in teens, such as:

  • Insomnia, or trouble sleeping
  • Headaches and unexplained aches and pains
  • Frequent illnesses
  • Tense muscles or jaw
  • Upset stomach
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Feeling shaky
  • Increased heartbeat
  • Cold, sweaty hands
  • Feeling out of it or disconnected
  • Trouble concentrating or getting things done
  • Irritability or anger
  • Always feeling tired
  • Depression or anxiety

When teens don't have healthy ways to cope with stress and its effects, they may turn to drug abuse to treat some of the symptoms. Of course, using drugs can actually increase stress and cause other mental and physical health problems. Teens can learn healthier ways to manage stress and reduce their chances of turning to drug abuse. Some methods that can help teens manage stress include:

  • Learn a relaxation technique for reducing feelings of stress, like deep breathing, visualizing a peaceful place, meditation, tai chi, or yoga.
  • Try to get enough sleep and eat a healthy diet.
  • Exercise, especially when you start to feel stressed. This can be as simple as taking a walk around the block, going on a bike ride, lifting weights, or doing some push ups.
  • Listen to calming music.
  • Watch or listen to something that makes you laugh.
  • Find a stress-free activity that you can enjoy like music, art, or writing.
  • Find a friend or family member to talk to about your concerns.
  • Try taking a break or having a change of scene. Sometimes doing something different for a while can make problems seem less overwhelming.
  • Learn to accept that you cannot control everything going on around you and that not everything is your responsibility, and then focus on the things you can control.
  • Set realistic expectations for yourself, even if those expectations are not the same as what friends, family members, teachers, or coaches have for you. This may include accepting that you don't have to try to be perfect and that it's okay to make mistakes or to fail sometimes.
  • Try not to put off important things that need to be done, like writing a paper that's due soon. Procrastination can increase stress.
  • Make time to do fun, safe activities with friends or family members.
  • Try not to be so busy that you don't have any time to relax. While it's great to be involved in a lot of good activities, it's also important to have some quiet time for yourself.
  • Try to keep time spent watching TV or using other media in balance with other activities in your life.
  • Focus on your accomplishments and on positive events rather than on setbacks and negative events.

If a teen feels overwhelmed by stress and feels out of control or is tempted to turn to drug or alcohol abuse to deal with their stress, they may need to get help from a doctor or counselor who can help them manage their stress.

Parents can also help teens reduce or manage stress and avoid drug abuse. For instance, they can:

  • Talk to their teens every day and listen to what they have to say without judging them or their problems
  • Have realistic expectations of their teens and accept their teens for who they are, including their strengths and their weaknesses
  • Don't over-schedule teens' lives or keep them so busy that they have no time to relax or enjoy themselves
  • Find fun, relaxing activities for you family to do together, like going on a walk or hike, playing a game, or watching a movie
  • Let teens know that drug abuse is not an acceptable way to deal with problems, and get help for teens who are abusing drugs or alcohol or seem to have trouble dealing with their problems
  • Get counseling for teens who have been through a traumatic or emotionally stressful event, especially if they seem depressed, angry, or stressed out


National Institute on Drug Abuse, Community Drug Alert Bulletin, "Stress and Substance Abuse" [online]
WebMD, Stress Management Health Center, "Tips to Manage Stress" [online]
Palo Alto Medical Foundation, We Are Talking: Teen Health, "Stress" [online]
Sweet Briar College, Academic Resource Center, "Tips for Managing Stress" [online]

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