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How are Drugs Used as a Coping Mechanism?

Drugs are sometimes used as a coping mechanism to deal with mental illnesses, as well as to numb everyday stress.

What Does Coping Mechanism Mean?

A coping mechanism is something that helps a person to decrease tension or anxiety, through either a conscious or unconscious adjustment or adaptation. In other words, coping mechanisms are the techniques people use to face stress or trauma and to help them navigate difficult and even painful emotional territory or situations. 

All significant life events, whether positive or negative, inflict stress to some degree. The most difficult events in our lives, such as death, divorce, job loss, and similar situations, can cause many people to feel significant amounts of distress and even grief. Positive events like getting married or experiencing the birth of a child, or even buying a home, can also lead to a tremendous amount of stress on an individual.

This chronic stress affects each individual in a different way, which is partially determined by the individual’s genetics as well as their life experience. That said, the relative level of stress that an individual is dealing with can be estimated with significant accuracy with the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory. The Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory uses 43 distinct life events and stressful situations, each with a corresponding score, to determine the vulnerability of a person to stress-induced breakdowns or mental illness development. 

Different Types of Coping Mechanisms

It is well-established that drugs and alcohol are poor coping mechanisms, but what are some more healthy alternatives? Here are some different coping mechanisms that can help you maintain control when stress levels are spiking:

  • Working out is a great way to not only clear your mind but also to get a very visceral and physically satisfying workout
  • Make an active effort to eat better and maintain a balanced diet to ensure that you have optimal nutrition and energy
  • Stay connected with your support people, it’s healthy for your overall recovery, but it also releases happy hormones in your brain, rebuilding those reward pathways
  • Get a hobby that not only takes up some idle time but also encourages personal growth on some level; this can be anything from gardening to gaming, to engaging in some creative pursuit or simply listening to music

Reasons People Use Drugs as Coping Mechanisms

Addiction is used as a coping mechanism by a substantial portion of the adult population, and a recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health indicated that the brain disease known as addiction has affected 1 in 12 American adults. Most drug addictions are centered around substances that have psychoactive effects and that alter the normal creation, transmission, and reabsorption of various neurotransmitters and other chemical messengers. 

While these chemical messengers often feature their own specific functions, like creating feelings of pleasure, helping in the reward and motivation centers, or affecting learning processes and basic movements. In addition to common neurochemicals like serotonin and dopamine, GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is also affected and can be stimulated by using some drugs. GABA is one of the body’s primary tranquilizers.

Among the reasons that people use drugs instead of healthy coping mechanisms is that for many people, recreational drugs are far more accessible and affordable than appropriate mental health care. This makes it much easier to incorporate self-medication into daily life following traumatic events. When the substances are used daily, for long periods, tolerance develops, which leads to dependency and addiction. 

The Development of Addictive Behaviors 

Addiction is often found in conjunction with mental health issues, such as bipolar disorder, and according to data from the National Alliance on Mental Illness somewhere between one-third and one-half of individuals with mental health issues also have co-occurring addiction disorders or vice versa. It is incredibly common for those with diagnosed and undiagnosed mental illness to utilize drugs or alcohol to self-medicate. 

This is common for two main reasons. First, it allows a method of escapism for the person taking the drugs. This is often the case when someone uses drugs or alcohol to reduce or eliminate uncomfortable feelings or emotions. The second reason is that in a significant number of those with undiagnosed mental illness, drug and alcohol use can help block out mental health symptoms. This leads to perceived relief from difficult situations, but in reality, it just offers an opportunity for tolerance and dependency to build. 

Once daily use is established, the individual will develop a tolerance to the substance, which means they will need more of the substance to feel the same effects. With enough time, tolerance turns to dependence, which is where the body needs the drug to function normally. That dependence breeds addiction when someone uses it compulsively to avoid the potential withdrawal symptoms.

Signs You are Using Drugs as a Coping Mechanism

While a true assessment would need to come from a qualified clinician, there are some common signs you can look for that may indicate that you’re relying on drugs or alcohol as coping mechanisms. Those signs can include:

  • Using drugs or alcohol to unwind on a consistent basis
  • Consistently using drugs or alcohol in social situations, whether permitted or not
  • Needing to consume drugs or alcohol to get to sleep
  • Thinking about the next time you’ll be able to use drugs
  • Using drugs or alcohol to improve your mood when stressed or upset

Alternative Methods of Coping 

Since addiction is a brain disease that creates changes in behavior, one of the biggest contributing factors to a successful recovery is using professional help at some point in the journey. Treatment programs at your local addiction facility can offer a reliable way to strengthen an individual’s coping toolkit. Inpatient programs can even help with the detox stage.

These treatment programs will help create healthy coping mechanisms, while also giving the patient more skills for avoiding triggering environments or situations in the first place. They help patients to recognize problematic behavior, and provide them with the tools they need to prevent relapses and stay sober far into the future. 

Find Help for an Addiction

If you or someone close to you needs help fighting addiction, reaching out for help can be the best first step. It may be intimidating, but talking with an addiction professional to create a treatment plan tailored to your needs is the best way to lay a solid foundation for a lasting recovery.