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July 24, 2022

Is There a Connection Between Addiction and the Healthcare Field?

Addiction can affect anyone, regardless of what they do for a living. However, careers that involve chronic stress, risk of burnout, high turnover rates, and exposure to emotional ups and downs can make addiction more likely. Sadly, these risks have made substance abuse problems an ongoing issue within the healthcare profession. Both doctors and nurses are at risk. Today, we’re going to explore the toll that addiction takes on the nursing profession.

The Challenges Of Working As A Nurse

Even though nurses are often calm and courteous, their job is demanding, taxing, and often chaotic. In other words, behind the professionalism nurses often display are several different factors that make the job extremely challenging. Although these factors can vary, they often include:

  • Stress
  • Fatigue
  • Emotional demands
  • Physical pain
  • Accessibility to drugs

Let’s review each challenge in more detail.

Stress. Since nurses provide physical and emotional support for patients and families with little or no help, they often deal with high stress levels. In fact, according to a Nursing Times Survey, 63% of nurses have stress-related physical and mental symptoms. These symptoms can include low energy, headaches, aches, pain, tense muscles, insomnia, anxiety, depression, irritability, restlessness, and racing thoughts. Sometimes, high levels of stress can cause nurses to make poor decisions that can negatively impact a patient’s health, which can cause even more stress.

Emotional demands. Even though nurses work primarily with physical health, their jobs can be as emotionally demanding as psychologists or psychiatrists. In addition to helping calm anxious patients down, nurses often grapple with feelings of guilt, despair, hopelessness, and anxiety. Unfortunately, there isn’t much downtime for nurses to address these feelings. So often, nurses are forced to repress these feelings, which can cause emotional and psychological distress.

Fatigue. Many nurses in the United States work more than 10 hours of overtime each week. Combined with already long workdays, these overtime shifts are physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting. Over time, chronic exhaustion leads to fatigue. Living with fatigue and working an emotionally demanding job often means that overworked nurses have very little energy. In addition to chronic tiredness and sleepiness, fatigue can cause dizziness, muscle weakness, slowed reflexes and responses, impaired thinking, and brain fog. Fatigue can also affect a nurse’s mood, memory, concentration, and decision-making.

Physical pain. Even though nurses help treat pain, many of them have physical pain due to the amount of time they spend walking, bending, stretching, and standing. Many nurses also experience back injuries when they’re lifting and moving patients. This physical pain, combined with fatigue, stress, and suppressed emotions, compels many nurses to seek temporary relief in substances.

Accessibility to drugs. Unlike most people, nurses work in environments filled with prescription painkillers. This means that they have easy access to drugs and other chemical substances prescribed to treat pain. Unfortunately, many prescription medications such as opioids, benzodiazepines, antidepressants, and stimulants trigger intense cravings that can tempt nurses to steal, misuse, and abuse drugs.

How Can These Challenges Increase The Risk of Addiction For Nurses?

Many of the challenges nurses face can lead to self-medication. As the name suggests, self-medication is any attempt to use alcohol, drugs, or other substances as a way to deal with depression, physical or emotional pain, or intense emotions. When nurses use prescription pills, alcohol, or illicit drugs as a way to deal with the pressures and challenges they’re facing at work, they’re self-medicating.

Self-medication can look different for everyone, but some of the most common signs associated with the behavior include:

  • Drinking, using prescription pills, or getting high when you’re stressed, depressed, angry, or uncomfortable
  • Getting high, drinking, or using prescription pills to be in a better mood or to feel better mentally
  • Using prescription painkillers and other substances to deal with grief, an argument, a break-up, or unexpected changes on the job
  • Feeling anxious when you don’t have access to drugs or alcohol
  • Drinking alcohol or taking illicit drugs alongside prescription medication to feel the effects of the drug more intensely

Other signs to look out for include:

  • Secrecy about how time is spent
  • Neglecting physical care and hygiene habits such as showering and eating
  • Increasing difficulties at work, home, or school
  • Sudden angry outburst
  • Staying away from family, friends, social events, and other activities
  • Sudden, unexplained changes in energy levels

Here’s how the challenges nurses face at work can lead to self-medication.

  • Stress. Even though stress is one of the body’s natural responses, experiencing high levels of stress day in and day out can leave nurses feeling drained and overwhelmed. Feeling this way can negatively affect their work performance. Some nurses may use stimulants to help maintain their work performance. Others may use prescription depressants and benzodiazepines as a temporary way to help calm themselves down and relax.
  • Fatigue. Many nurses struggling with fatigue use prescription stimulants to temporarily boost their energy levels. Nurses might also use painkillers to help temporarily relieve some of the physical symptoms commonly associated with fatigue, such as muscle weakness, aches, and soreness.
  • Emotional demands. Dealing with sickness, grief, and death can put an emotional strain on nurses who repress their feelings. Suppressing these kinds of emotions can lead to depression, anxiety, racing thoughts, and, in some cases, paranoia. Some nurses start using antidepressants to experience some type of relief from these emotions.

Working as a nurse can be incredibly challenging. However, self-medication increases the risk of addiction, ultimately leading to more problems.

Are Nurses At A Higher Risk Of Addiction?

As vital as nurses are, research consistently shows that nurses do have a higher risk of addiction than individuals working in other industries. In fact, according to the American Nurses Association, one in ten nurses abuse drugs or alcohol. Some other statistics to consider include:

What Are Some of The Most Common Substances That Nurses Misuse?

Even though nurses with substance use disorders use a variety of drugs to cope with the challenges of their job, some of the most common substances misused include:

  • Prescription painkillers such as fentanyl, hydrocodone, morphine, codeine, oxycodone, methadone, midazolam, buprenorphine, benzodiazepines, and barbiturates. Approximately 7% of nurses use prescription drugs for non-medical purposes, which is higher than the national average.
  • Alcohol. Research also shows that nurses have a higher rate of alcohol addiction than other types of work. Binge drinking is responsible for a large portion of the industry’s excessive alcohol consumption.
  • Illicit drugs. Most nurses grappling with a substance use disorder have a dependence on alcohol or prescription drugs, but some nurses use illicit substances. These drugs can include cocaine, heroin, marijuana, amphetamines, sedatives, tranquilizers, and inhalants.

Real Recovery For Real People

Here at Meta, we pride ourselves on providing real recovery for real people. Nurses are some of the most loving, caring, helpful, and giving people. At the same time, nurses are highly vulnerable to addiction. The challenges associated with their job can easily compel them to self-medicate, misuse, and abuse the very drugs they use to help others. The good news is that treatment programs like the ones we offer can provide nurses the treatment they need so they can continue helping others without harming themselves.

Don’t let addiction stop you or someone you know from doing the job you love. We can help nurses regain control of their lives and maintain the job they love. Our flexible, outpatient treatment programs take place in a judgment-free environment. Contact us today to learn more.