Stress and Drug Use: What Every Parent Should Know

We all have stress in our lives. When it comes to your teens, you know that school (like homework, tests, SATs, college applications) combined with juggling social media and after-school activities is one of the biggest sources — and you want to make sure that it doesn’t lead them to unhealthy behaviors to help cope.

Stress can be a motivator, but it can also produce negative feelings and, unfortunately, increase the possibility that a teen will use drugs.

When people are under stress, the brain releases cortisol, the stress hormone. Over time and under chronic stress, parts of the brain that are related to memory or learning are negatively affected by the presence of cortisol. Interestingly, some of these areas of the brain are the same parts impacted by drug use and addiction[1].

Your child’s brain is still developing until age 25, and stress can damage parts of the brain that can make them more vulnerable to drug addiction, in the same way as an early initiation of drug use[2].

It’s not a new concept that stress can lead to drug use and addiction — far from it — but it’s something that many parents don’t necessarily associate with school and the good intentions they have for their kids. Abusing drugs not prescribed to them, like prescription stimulants, act on the “reward center” in your child’s brain, releasing euphoric chemicals like dopamine and serotonin. In time, they can cause the brain to rely on drugs to keep those chemicals flowing. While drugs might make your child temporarily feel respite, in the long run, misusing drugs actually makes stress more pronounced[3].

Unfortunately, those exposed to chronic stress are more likely to use substances in an attempt to relax or “power through” the stress, so it’s important that your child knows how to use healthy coping mechanisms instead to deal with the pressures he or she faces[4].