Chronic stress, drug use, and vulnerability to addiction

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2008 Oct;1141:105-30. doi: 10.1196/annals.1441.030.


Stress is a well-known risk factor in the development of addiction and in addiction relapse vulnerability. A series of population-based and epidemiological studies have identified specific stressors and individual-level variables that are predictive of substance use and abuse. Preclinical research also shows that stress exposure enhances drug self-administration and reinstates drug seeking in drug-experienced animals. The deleterious effects of early life stress, child maltreatment, and accumulated adversity on alterations in the corticotropin releasing factor and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (CRF/HPA), the extrahypothalamic CRF, the autonomic arousal, and the central noradrenergic systems are also presented. The effects of these alterations on the corticostriatal-limbic motivational, learning, and adaptation systems that include mesolimbic dopamine, glutamate, and gamma-amino-butyric acid (GABA) pathways are discussed as the underlying pathophysiology associated with stress-related risk of addiction. The effects of regular and chronic drug use on alterations in these stress and motivational systems are also reviewed, with specific attention to the impact of these adaptations on stress regulation, impulse control, and perpetuation of compulsive drug seeking and relapse susceptibility. Finally, research gaps in furthering our understanding of the association between stress and addiction are presented, with the hope that addressing these unanswered questions will significantly influence new prevention and treatment strategies to address vulnerability to addiction.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Arousal
  • Chronic Disease
  • Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone / physiology
  • Disease Susceptibility
  • Emotions
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiopathology
  • Illicit Drugs / adverse effects
  • Limbic System / physiopathology
  • Male
  • Neurotransmitter Agents / physiology
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiopathology
  • Reward
  • Self Medication
  • Stress, Physiological*
  • Stress, Psychological
  • Substance Withdrawal Syndrome / physiopathology
  • Substance Withdrawal Syndrome / psychology
  • Substance-Related Disorders / etiology*
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / physiopathology


  • Illicit Drugs
  • Neurotransmitter Agents
  • Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone