The Stress Factor: Addiction and Relapse

My path differs somewhat from the typical paths of addiction and recovery. My primary addiction was to my work, particularly to the publicly listed organic foods business of which I was chairman and co-founder. As a workaholic, I found myself sliding down the slippery slope of stress and addiction into a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, the loss of my rights as a New Zealand citizen which saw me become a ward of the state, and a two-year path of intensive research and recovery at institutions such as the Mayo Clinic and the Menninger Clinic with an array of leading experts in the fields of health and mental health.

Nineteen years after my initial breakdown and diagnosis of bipolar disorder (BP-I), I am grateful to say that I have been completely free of any psychotropic medication for 17 years, including sleeping pills, and also free of the need for any psychiatric or psychotherapeutic care. I’ve experienced no relapses whatsoever of bipolar disorder, depression, or other psychological disorders, and I today enjoy the best years of well-being I’ve ever known, despite the many warnings from doctors that a serious relapse of bipolar disorder was imminent.

While the horror and misery of that breakdown and the ensuing struggles are without equal in my life, I find myself owing a debt of gratitude to this ordeal. It was the wakeup call I needed to transform my life, which was increasingly spiraling out of control and robbing me of enjoying any of life’s real gifts, such as joy, freedom, family, and health. More importantly for my life today, it opened the door to an entirely new path of supporting others in their healing and recovery, one that has become my passion and life’s purpose and that finds its current expression in the LifeREstyle residential recovery retreat I’ve founded. And, finally, this struggle was what enabled me to understand what I believe to be an essential thread in the fabric of addictions and the topic that forms the basis of this article: stress.

Stress, in some form or another, is a constant companion in life, and we all deal with it in our own unique way. Of course, stress is helpful in emergency situations, in the face of certain immediate challenges that we experience, and for some situations where heightened performance is required, even life-saving. However, what is unnatural and dangerous is stress that is not generated for any immediate situation but that instead underlies our everyday existence due to our inability to examine and transform it. While the stress response can be understood as the psychological and physiological reaction that is triggered when one feels threatened or challenged, giving rise to the fight-or-flight mode, in many of us in today’s world this stress response is unfortunately in a chronic state of activation. This throws our bodies and minds off balance and wreaks havoc with our health. Left unchecked, chronic stress often leads to both physical and mental breakdowns that can be severe.

In my extensive research to find a cure for my bipolar disorder, I found that stress is one of the leading causes of addiction and relapse: there is a direct connection between the two. Many people turn to drugs and alcohol as they seek short-term relief from the unpleasant emotions caused by stress. What scientists have discovered is that stress affects many of the same neuro-transmitters as drugs and alcohol—in the same areas of the brain—but in opposing ways, with stress being an unpleasant negative stimulus and alcohol and addictive drugs having a relieving or pleasurable effect, at least initially. These same researchers also found that stress alone can induce changes in addiction-related brain cells similar to those caused by drugs. This raises the strong possibility of a “priming mechanism” that could make someone who has or is experiencing stress much more vulnerable to addiction or relapse after treatment.

Furthermore, it is believed that hypersensitivity to stress can lead to susceptibility to addiction and increase the chances of relapse. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), “The nervous system of an addict is hypersensitive to chemically induced stress, which suggests that the nervous system also may be hypersensitive to emotional stress. The fact that addicts often relapse apparently in response to what most people would consider mild stressors suggests that addicts may be more sensitive than non-addicts to stress.” NIDA also reported that “stress is one of the most powerful triggers for relapse in addicted individuals, even after long periods of abstinence.”

With all of the scientific data available demonstrating the complexities of addiction recovery that has been validated by extensive research performed by leading scientists and researchers, it’s perplexing to witness the persistent dominance of the 30-day addiction treatment program. Why is this still the case? I know from interactions with my colleagues that everyone responds to addiction treatment much like how they deal with stress: in their own unique way. People who walk into a treatment center are not all equal. There are a lot of variables to each individual’s condition, such as the substance they were abusing and for how long, their physical condition, their environment, and so on.

On closer examination, one finds that the 30-day model was simply pulled out of thin air. 28 days was merely the length of time the developers of the Minnesota Model chose for their program back in the 1950s. Insurance companies adopted the model as a standard for what they were willing to pay for. However, the challenges we face today with addiction are far greater in size and scope than the developers of the Minnesota Model could have ever anticipated. First of all, the Minnesota Model was designed primarily for alcoholics. Today we’re in the middle of a nationwide opiate epidemic that is showing no signs of easing up. Treatment for opiates can differ from alcohol treatment and often takes longer. For example, it takes weeks after detox before an addict’s cognition can achieve a state where treatment can begin to take hold, yet the treatment model is still based on a 30-day period. It’s just not enough time to be thorough and effective. And regardless of whether we’re dealing with alcohol, opiates, or any other substance or subject of addiction, the inherent limitations and narrowness of the standard 30-day model are going to undermine the efficacy of sustained recovery. We need to approach the question of recovery with a comprehensive approach that addresses all levels of the individual.

This highlights the importance of the recovery facility in the individual’s journey to wellness. Some key factors to consider are the facility’s focus on treating the body in such a way that a person’s health improves to a level beyond that which they possessed when they first succumbed to addiction. It’s not enough to bring the body back to a modicum of health; the body must be enlivened and fortified to be able to withstand stress and provide the individual the resources needed to begin not just to survive but to thrive in life. This ability to withstand stress and to build a thriving life are the greatest buffers against relapse.

Such a program will be compatible with the core values of addiction treatment, such as 12-step meetings and therapy appointments, but will also support residents with a fundamental structure of the right kinds of physical activity, carefully considered dietary attention—not just “healthy food,” but an organic, balanced, unprocessed diet that eliminates common substances that are extremely problematic for recovery, such as caffeine, sugar, and refined foods—and a sleep cycle that enables the body to fully rejuvenate and recover from what may be years of abuse. The availability of alternative medicine and mind-body education and practices will also usually be standard in such programs.

Additionally, the importance of developing or enhancing life skills cannot be dismissed as an essential component of recovery. One of the keys to recovery is creating a new life for yourself where it is easier to avoid the stressors that caused you to abuse drugs or alcohol in the first place. This requires skills and planning. A good wellness program designed for addicts after treatment will include programs that teach these skills and coping techniques that will put their feet on stable ground and prove invaluable in their recovery.

A recovery that is based on building the resilience and vitality of the body, supporting the mind in its healing from pain and self-destructive patterns, and developing life skills that will support residents in building thriving lives beyond recovery is the surest way to a new, flourishing life. In my passion for providing such an environment, I developed the LifeREstyle Redondo Beach residential retreat to emphasize exactly these elements of recovery through the program’s incorporation of my proven nine natural steps, its holistic diet and lifestyle structure, and its integration of life skills, a supportive social environment, and holistic coaching.

As I look back on the years leading up to and following my breakdown, I’m reminded of the demoralization and misery that often accompanies such trying periods in our lives. It’s heartening to know, however, that these experiences can often open doors to unexpected possibilities. As the LifeREstyle program continues to graduate residents into new and flourishing lives, I’m filled with gratitude for the opportunity to support others on their own journeys to healing and wholeness.


New Zealander Paul Huljich is considered one of America’s top stress experts. He recently opened the LifeREstyle Wellness Recovery Retreat in Redondo Beach, California, where he and his staff implement his nine-step overall wellness plan. His book Stress Pandemic: 9 Natural Steps To Survive, Master Stress, and Live Well, an Amazon bestseller and winner of several awards, was written for the growing number of people wishing to free themselves of mild, moderate, or severe stress and mental health challenges. The book outlines a practical, effective and proven approach to responding to mental health issues and achieving complete wellness. Huljich is a frequent speaker at wellness conferences, universities, and events hosted by the National Alliance of Mental Illness. He also conducts motivational LifeREstyle seminars and workshops, including at the Omega Institute in New York and in Hawaii.

Prior to his work in the mental wellness field, Paul co-founded Best Corporation, a pioneering organic foods company of which he was Chairman and Joint-CEO. In leading the company to great success—during which its value grew to more than $100 million as a publicly listed company on the stock exchange—he eventually developed a number of severe stress-related conditions, including severe depression and anxiety, ultimately being diagnosed by several psychiatrists in 1998 as suffering from bipolar disorder. Aided by exhaustive research, Huljich ultimately succeeded in fortifying himself and mastering his stress, overcoming his conditions and achieving a healthy, positive way of life by developing and implementing his nine-step overall wellness plan. Since the year 2000, Huljich has not taken any medication related to mental health conditions, suffered any relapse, nor needed any further treatment regarding any kind of mental illness.

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