Does drinking alcohol help you relax, release tension, or feel less anxious? Does smoking a cigarette help you feel calmer and reduce stress? Or do you turn to something else to help you navigate your day? Whatever your substance of choice may be, people usually turn to them because they appreciate the effect. This can be especially true in times of emotional difficulty.
The problem is that these substances have a detrimental effect on a person’s overall well-being, and their beneficial effects are short-term. After consumption, the initial emotional issues are still there, and so the choice then becomes whether to consume more or confront uncomfortable feelings along with their underlying causes.
Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms
Using substances to deal with uncomfortable feelings can lead to unhealthy, habit-forming coping mechanisms. If you have used a particular substance for a long time, you may feel that you lack the skills required to manage difficult situations without it.
For example, if you regularly drink or use substances to relax at the end of the day, you may find you feel tense or irritable if they are absent. You may also find you avoid social situations if you know that alcohol isn’t available or you are unable to use your substance of choice. These coping mechanisms vary in their effect depending on the individual. In a best-case scenario, you feel like you cannot cope without them, and worst-case, an addiction is formed, leading to severe psychological and physiological disorders.
A person who uses substances to cope has possibly struggled with their emotions from a young age, long before introducing alcohol or drugs. Turning to substances provided much-needed relief and meant the individual could postpone facing the underlying causes of their emotional challenges.
Typically, these are negative states such as:
Learning how to face and manage difficult emotions is a skill that requires self-compassion and understanding to disentangle yourself from avoiding negative feelings and the need to use alcohol and drugs.
The Importance of Feelings
Feelings are essential for us to understand our experiences and the world around us. Our brain is continually scanning the environment and interpreting information to notify us of any threats. While these can range from life-threatening to a disagreement with a colleague, physical illness, or appropriate anger to a detrimental situation, we can make the best decisions for our evolving conditions if we are aware of our feelings.
By trying to avoid negative emotions, we fail to learn from our brain’s signals and are more likely to react inappropriately should a challenging situation arise. Aside from this, the substances we choose to avoid these feelings can also negatively affect our mindfulness, health, and emotional well-being.
Creating Positive Coping Mechanisms
Once you reduce or stop using a substance, the feelings that surface may come as quite a surprise. Removing these coping mechanisms can result in a wealth of suppressed emotions, and cravings to return to previous habits are often intense. It is therefore essential to form alternative, healthy coping techniques that will serve to alleviate emotional discomfort. The following practices may help:
- Talking to a loved one about your feelings. Often the act of voicing our fears or discomfort is enough to ease them.
- Observe the feelings while remembering they are impermanent and will pass.
- Practice meditation or yoga.
- Start a new hobby or other activity, such as art, sports, volunteering, or gardening.
- Spend more time outdoors to reap the grounding benefits of nature.
By continually returning to using a substance, you strengthen habit-forming patterns. If you find yourself returning to alcohol or drugs to cope with unpleasant emotions, joining a support group or engaging in therapy is recommended.
By seeking out effective treatment and support, you can learn to develop the essential skills required to flourish and lead a positive, joyful life.