Alcohol abuse and dependence can often arise from the use of alcohol as a coping mechanism.
Scottish culture celebrates alcohol as a way to unwind after a hard day at work, drown sorrow in hard times, and as a social lubricant in all sorts of situations. However, using alcohol as a catch-all way to balance out emotional experience or become less present has some real consequences.
What is a Coping Mechanism?
A coping mechanism is something that helps a person deal with something that is difficult for them. While all coping mechanisms provide the person using them with a real or perceived benefit, some coping mechanisms have more negative consequences associated with them.
Unfortunately, alcohol is a coping mechanism the temporary benefits of which are often outweighed by the long-term negative effects on health and relationships, poor decision-making under the influence, as well as increased dependency.
People may use alcohol to cope with:
- Difficult emotions
- Challenging life events: death of a family member, a break-up, illness, etc.
- Trauma / PTSD symptoms
- Social anxiety
Does Alcohol Function as a Coping Mechanism?
Alcohol functions to slow down the central nervous system, creating feelings of relaxation. It also reduces inhibition, judgement, and memory. All of these qualities are reasons that some people use alcohol to try to cope.
Who Uses Alcohol as a Coping Mechanism?
People from all walks of life use alcohol as a coping mechanism, from business people stressed by a heavy workload to college students overwhelmed by social anxiety, to veterans suffering from PTSD.
Dangers of Alcohol Use as a Coping Mechanism
Addiction: Whether or not substance abuse and/or addiction run in your family, all people experience increased tolerance for alcohol the more and longer that they drink. More alcohol is required to achieve the same effect. In extreme cases of physical dependence on alcohol, a person can become so addicted that they experience withdrawal symptoms without the substance, such as tremors, sweating, insomnia, headaches and more. Alcohol withdrawal can be fatal in severe cases.
Damage to Relationships: Using alcohol as a coping mechanism tends to have consequences in relationships. At best, it tends to create distance between loved ones. At worst, it can contribute to anger, fighting, and irresponsible behaviour in relationships.
Failure to develop alternate coping skills: If a person is constantly using alcohol to, for example, avoid feelings of sadness and loneliness, they may fail to develop other ways of managing this distress, such as developing close relationships, practicing mindfulness, or seeking help from a mental health professional. Alcohol becomes a crutch and a barrier to developing more adaptive or effective coping strategies.
Developing Alternate Coping Skills
One of the most effective ways of addressing alcohol dependence and abuse that arises from using alcohol as a coping mechanism is to develop other effective coping mechanisms. Rather than simply resolving to “stop drinking,” which removes one coping skill without replacing it with another, it is important to have other skills in place. After all, you were drinking for a reason, so it’s important to address that reason and find other ways to meet the need it filled.
Some examples of alternate coping skills include:
- Reaching out to others for comfort and support
- Physical activity like walking, swimming, sports
- Mindfulness practices like meditation or yoga
- Breathing techniques
- Distraction, like watching TV or listening to music
- Learning and practicing social skills to address social anxiety
- Talking to a therapist
- Making art
- And many more
Looking for the Root of the Problem
Finding a sustainable solution to alcohol abuse and addiction requires a good understanding of what drives the problem and what exactly you are using it to “cope” with. This often requires doing some introspective work and addressing topics that may be vulnerable, like past trauma, a high-stress lifestyle, or feelings of low self-worth. Some of the ways that people may explore and address what is driving their use of alcohol as a coping mechanism include:
- Group therapy
- Individual counselling
- Family therapy
- Trauma therapy (EMDR, etc.)
- Intensive Outpatient Programs for Alcohol
- Day Treatment Programs for Alcohol
- Residential Treatment Programs for Alcohol