Addiction as a Coping Mechanism and Healthy Alternatives

asian woman holding alcohol bottle in paper bag looking at bottle

Addiction is a brain disease that one out of every 12 American adults suffered from in 2014, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). There are many reasons why a person may turn to drugs or alcohol initially, including using these mind-altering substances as a coping mechanism for stress, difficult emotions, physical ailments, and other issues. Drugs and alcohol can provide a temporary respite from reality and everyday life. They can enhance pleasure and decrease inhibitions and anxiety.

Coping mechanisms are compulsions, or habits formed over time, that serve to help a person manage with particular situations or stress levels. Not all coping mechanisms are maladaptive or destructive; however, addiction is both.

Addiction can take many forms, from addictions to drugs and/or alcohol to addictions to shopping, gambling, sex, internet use, eating, and other behaviors. Addiction is defined by the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) as a brain disease indicated by cravings, an inability to abstain from the behavior or substance, dysfunctional emotional responses, and a loss of behavioral control. Compulsive behaviors are often unconscious and perhaps mindless choices.

A coping mechanism is a method of dealing with unhappiness, stress, or other potential issues. It is whatever a person does to handle negative emotions or problems. Addiction can be an unhealthy coping mechanism.

Addiction as a Brain Disease

Psychoactive substances interact in the brain, disrupting the normal transmission, production, and reabsorption of its chemical messengers. Dopamine and serotonin (neurotransmitters involved in feelings of pleasure, motivation, memory functions, reward processing, movement, and learning abilities) are often increased, for example. Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a sort of natural tranquilizer, or its virtual opposite, norepinephrine (adrenaline), may also be stimulated by drug abuse.

Functions of the central nervous system (CNS), like heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and respiration rates, are also impacted by drug and alcohol use. Stimulant drugs increase CNS activity while depressants slow it down. With repeated drug or alcohol use, the brain becomes dependent on the substances to remain in balance, and difficult withdrawal symptoms occur when the substance wears off. Drug use may then become compulsive, and individuals may lose their ability to control how much and how often they use them.

In similar fashion, other compulsive behaviors, such as binge eating, shopping, gambling, sex, or playing video games, can also increase some of the pleasure-inducing brain chemicals that drugs and alcohol do and lead to addiction with prolonged repetition. These behavioral addictions can then become tools for managing unhappiness and stress, and may also be used as coping mechanisms. Cravings for the behavior can be intense, and withdrawal can be difficult, meaning that stress levels and unhappiness will increase if these compulsive behaviors are not repeated.

Addiction interferes with normal life, disrupting interpersonal relationships, home life, and work and school attendance and production, leading to financial strain and potential legal and criminal difficulties. Overall, this contributes to significant emotional and physical problems for the person. Addiction as a coping mechanism is harmful to the brain, body, and spirit; it also damages family, friends, and society as a whole.

Addiction, Co-Occurring Disorders, and Stress

Addiction and mental health disorders often co-occur. In fact, between a third to half of individuals suffering from mental health disorders also battle addiction and vice versa, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) publishes. Drugs can be a form of self-medication for an untreated or undiagnosed mental illness, providing temporary relief from difficult symptoms.

Addiction can become a coping mechanism for both physical and emotional issues. The withdrawal symptoms that accompany drug dependence can actually make mental illness symptoms like depression, anxiety, and sleep difficulties worse, however. In the long run, substance abuse only serves to exacerbate mental health issues and complicate treatment.

Stress and exposure to trauma are closely linked with drug abuse and addiction as well. When someone feels stressed, changes are made in the brain, and the CNS often responds with a “fight-or-flight” reaction. This can enhance survival and be healthy in many cases; however, chronic and high levels of stress on a regular basis can be detrimental to a person’s health and increase their vulnerability to addiction and relapse, the journal Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences warns. High stress levels and hyperactive nerve activity can lead a person to want to use drugs or alcohol, or to engage in another compulsive behavior, in order to cope. Addiction can then become a coping mechanism for stress. Whenever stress begins to increase, the compulsive behavior (e.g., drug abuse, gambling, eating, sex, internet use, etc.) is repeated in an attempt to alleviate the uncomfortable feelings. The compulsion may offer temporary relief or an escape, but this will be short-lived in the case of addiction, and cravings to repeat the behavior will soon reoccur.

Alternative Methods of Coping in Recovery

As addiction is considered a brain disease with behavioral implications, professional help is optimal in helping to restore a healthy balance to the brain and create new and healthier coping mechanisms. Addiction treatment programs use behavioral therapies, counseling, supportive measures, and often medications to regulate brain chemistry and build new and improved habits and life skills for recovery. Stress and anger management, communication skills, relapse prevention tools, and new coping mechanisms are learned.

During addiction treatment, individuals are taught methods for managing cravings and handling potential triggers that may arise. There are many healthy alternatives to using addiction as a coping mechanism, and these alternatives can be used in recovery to minimize relapse and keep moving forward. They include:

  • Exercise: Healthy doses of exercise release endorphins and help to reduce tension, stabilize moods, and improve self-esteem and sleep habits, thus working as a optimal coping mechanism for stress, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) publishes. Staying physically active can boost both emotional and physical health and manage stress, therefore helping to control cravings and prevent relapse.
  • Mindfulness meditation: Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness meditation can be useful as coping mechanisms to bring about self-reflection and make people more in tune with their bodies. By learning how the mind, body, and spirit are connected through breathing exercises and meditative techniques, for example, these connections can be strengthened and help to form healthy ways to manage stress and tension.
  • Spirituality: For many, finding faith and a connection to a higher power can provide an inner strength and strong foundation for managing difficulties as well as for self-introspection. Twelve-Step programs focus on turning one’s life over to a higher power, and they can offer faith-based tools and coping methods for managing cravings and stress in an effort to minimize relapse.
  • Positive reframing: Try to think of things in a positive light instead of a negative one. By thinking of conflicts positively, perspectives can be changed for the better. Resist the urge to see things negatively and instead think of positive alternatives.
  • Humor: Humor is considered a healthy coping mechanism, as laughter can help people to see things in a lighter frame of mind.
  • Problem-solving: By identifying a problem as it arises, a person can better learn how to handle it and not be overwhelmed by the issue.
  • Art, journaling, or creative expression: Creative outlets can provide a way to express oneself in a healthy manner, be it via dance, painting, sculpting, drawing, writing, playing a musical instrument, or composing. Journaling can be a method of expelling negative thoughts, and creative expressions can work to relieve stress.
  • Communication and support: Talk it out, and don’t be afraid to ask for help when needed. Healthy communication can be a great outlet for releasing stress, and it can be helpful to have a support group of peers, therapists, family members, friends, and mentors to lean on and talk to on regular basis.
  • Giving back: Volunteering for a charity, mentoring others, or putting energy into a positive outlet can be a helpful way of reversing and channeling negative emotions in order to help others.

It is also vital to get enough sleep, eat healthy, and continue to focus on problem-solving skills in order to keep up the motivation to remain abstinent in recovery. A healthy body can provide a strong base for a healthy mind, and by eating a balanced diet and sticking to a structured sleep schedule, recovery can be fostered.

Remaining vigilant, patient, and committed to recovery is important. Continue to attend support group meetings, counseling, and therapy sessions, and participate in alumni programs as these outlets foster healthy habits. The coping mechanisms taught in an addiction treatment program can become second nature over time, proving essential to a sustained recovery.

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