Define iatrogenic stress in relation to substance abuse.

Expert Answers
karenrandolph eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The word Iatrogenic is Greek in origin. Iatros refers to a healer or doctor, and gennan means 'as a product of...' or due to a healer's or doctor's action ( Iatrogenic stress, applied to the notion of substance abuse, goes beyond this original meaning to include environmental, familial, and societal stressors, which can all exacerbate or heighten the emotional and physical sensitivity of those who are substance abusers or former substance abusers.

According to, the majority of people who begin using drugs believe they will be able to stop whenever they choose, and without anyone's help. Long-term drug abuse, however, often leads to fundamental shifts within the brain, shifts that remain even after the substance abuse has stopped. This relationship between substance abuse and brain chemistry changes often lead to relapses among former substance abusers.

Selye (1956) equated Iatrogenic stress to a patterned physiological response, which he defined as 'general adaptation syndrome' (p. 12). Selye identified three elements necessary to diagnosing Iatrogenic stress: 1) The stress response must be entirely a defensive response. 2) The defense response must be composed of three sub-elements: a) "alarm; b) resistance; c) exhaustion." 3) If Iatrogenic stress is prolonged, it can result in 'diseases of adaptation'. This means that the chemistry of substance abusers' brains not only 'adapt' to the use of substances, but also develop a physiological need for the use of these substances.

More current research being conducted surrounding Iatrogenic stress among substance abusers supports Selye's notion that Iatrogenic stress can emerge within recovering drug abusers through behaviors such as visiting locations in which they formerly abused drugs, meeting with former acquaintances who continue to abuse drugs, and also from smells or sounds that remind recovering drug abusers of their former behavior.

An additional element contributing to Iatrogenic stress among substance abusers and recovering substance abusers is the stigma attached by 'society' to the use and or abuse of drugs. This societal stigma often prevents substance abusers from seeking help, thus leading to Iatrogenic stress, or 'the disease of adaptation.'