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Alcohol Abuse as a Coping Mechanism

February 21, 2017
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Are You Using Alcohol As a Coping Mechanism? Ask yourself if you drink for any of these reasons on a regular basis:

  • I drink to relieve stress.
  • I drink to avoid painful emotions like sadness, shame, or regret.
  • I drink to lessen social anxiety.
  • I drink to feel less edgy or anxious.
  • I drink to go to sleep.
  • I drink to relieve boredom.
  • I drink to avoid painful memories.

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, you are using alcohol as a coping mechanism. This simply means that you are using it to deal with something that you find difficult or uncomfortable. Many people use alcohol as a coping mechanism – in fact in our culture we find reference to this everywhere: TV and movies are full of characters drinking to take the sting out of a break-up, downing shots in order to feel comfortable at a party, or having a glass of wine after a stressful day.

Alcohol Abuse and Adolescents

If using alcohol as a coping mechanism is so normal in our society, how do we recognize if it has become problematic? The answer to this question depends on the individual. However, for adolescents and young adults, the use of alcohol as a coping mechanism has even more potential consequences than it might for an adult. Adolescents’ and young adults’ brains are going through many important changes, all the way up until age 25. Not only can alcohol use impact brain development, but this is also a time when the neural pathways are being formed (and unused pathways pruned). What this means is that for teens’ brains, the term “use it or lose it” is very applicable. When teens use alcohol or other substances as a coping mechanism, it means that their brains are becoming accustomed to this way of dealing with stress, anxiety, or difficulty. They are also missing out on the opportunity to develop and practice alternate ways of coping, putting them at an even greater disadvantage when it comes to developing lifelong healthy coping mechanisms.

Adolescence is an important time for teens to do things like practice interacting socially without the influence of substances so that they can develop social confidence. It’s also important for them to learn to reach out to friends and family for support in times of stress or sadness, rather than turning to alcohol or other substances. And for teens or young adults who have experienced trauma, this is a critical time to address that trauma rather than bury it with alcohol.

Healthy vs. Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

Not all coping mechanisms are bad! It is important to address the positive and negative impacts of your various coping mechanisms. These impacts will be different for different people. Making a list of pros and cons can help you decide what is right for you. For example, exercise can be a great coping mechanism for dealing with stress and improving sleep.

A list for exercise might look like this:

Pros:

  1. Relieves stress
  2. Boosts endorphins and other feel-good chemicals
  3. Increased body confidence
  4. Better sleep
  5. Improved mood

Cons:

  1. Can be hard to motivate
  2. Fewer options in cold weather

Healthy coping mechanisms tend to have more pros than cons.

Choosing Healthy Coping Mechanisms

It isn’t fair to expect yourself to stop using all of your old coping mechanisms without replacing them with something new. It is important to find coping mechanisms that are in line with your values and goals. Here are some common, healthy coping mechanisms:

  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Going for a walk
  • Running
  • Calling a friend
  • Talking to a family member
  • Talking to a therapist
  • Joining a support group
  • Going to a 12-Step meeting
  • Playing with a pet
  • Volunteering
  • Reading
  • Eating healthy
  • Dancing
  • Finding a new hobby
  • Journaling

Identify some safe and healthy coping skills that you already use and a couple that you’d like to try. Write down your ideas and share them with someone else. This will increase accountability so you will be more likely to stick to it.

Remember that as you replace any unhealthy coping mechanisms with healthier ones, you are likely to have some slips. Be patient with yourself and learn from your mistakes.

Professional Help

If despite your best efforts, you are struggling to replace alcohol or drug use with healthy coping skills,  you may be struggling with addiction and need support in changing your behavior. Or if your efforts to cut back on alcohol use have led you to replace it with another less-than-healthy coping mechanism, this could indicate that you need to address the underlying cause of these behaviors. Sandstone Care’s qualified and caring team can help you address unhealthy alcohol and drug use, and also treat any underlying mental health concerns. We offer comprehensive treatment including a medical detox center. Call our admissions team today.  

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