Inability to Cope and Addiction

Stress is a part of life that we all deal with. Whether it’s caused by work, school, or social engagements, the pressure to keep up with everyday tasks is something everyone can relate to.

When stress levels get too high, however, it can be a difficult thing to manage.

Unfortunately, research show that many people turn to addiction when they are not able to cope with the mounting stress of their day-to-day life [1]. To handle a large workload or take their minds off some family drama, substance abuse can be a quick way to achieve calm and clarity.

This is an unhealthy and dangerous means of handling stress as it can harm both our physical and mental health.

To understand why this pattern occurs, however, it is important to understand what stress and addiction do to the body.

Stress and addiction – what happens in the body?

Addiction is often a coping mechanism because it effectively counteracts the short-term effects of what stress does.

Stress is our body’s natural method of making us aware that there is some sort of danger or problem in our lives. It lets us know that we need to act in order to achieve or avoid something, and is a primary way of motivating us to do something.

When we become stressed, a hormone called cortisol is released from our adrenal glands. This activates our brain, increases our blood pressure, and prepares us for the oncoming challenge.

As well as this state of alertness, however, stress can also induce several negative emotions. Common feelings caused by stress include:

  • Frustration
  • Anger
  • Irritability
  • Confusion
  • Sadness

Often, an individual’s susceptibility to stress will be determined by how they perceive tasks and events. The brain’s response is commonly governed by the difficulty of what’s in front of us and how well we have handled similar things in the past.

For example, if an individual has low self-esteem and does not believe they are capable of doing it, they are more likely to be stressed by it. The brain perceives a harder task, and so higher levels of cortisol are pumped out.

Combatting stress with substance

In the midst of a stressful situation, an individual may be inclined to turn to a substance, such as drugs or alcohol, to manage the rising stress.

Many people use drugs or alcohol to feel more confident and avoid unpleasant feelings. These feelings, uncoincidentally, are the same negative emotions induced by stress.

When we drink alcohol or take drugs, it releases dopamine in our brains – the pleasure hormone of the body – which relaxes and soothes us.

The good feeling of this act is often able to counterbalance the stressful effect of cortisol and keep us calm.

How the brain reacts

When the brain processes the effect that the substance has, it will make the connection that the alcohol or drug taken was useful for combatting the feelings of stress.

This is because the brain functions on the pleasure principle. This basically means that, when our brain perceives the beneficial effect of a certain substance or activity, it will remember it and try to re-experience that pleasure again in the future [2].

In the context of stress, this means that the brain will perceive the drug or alcohol taken as a viable means of handling the negative effects of stress.

Therefore, when a situation arises which causes stress, the individual will feel inclined to take the same substance as last time. Here, the cycle of using addiction as a coping mechanism begins.

What happens when you use addiction as a coping mechanism?

When taking drugs or alcohol to combat stress becomes a regular part of our lives, it can have negative effects on both our physical and mental health.

Specifically, substance abuse can cause both physical and psychological dependency.

What is a dependency?

Overuse of substances such as drugs and alcohol can change the body’s chemistry so much so that it struggles to function without it. This is known as physical dependency.

If the individual goes a while without another dose, they may experience withdrawal symptoms, similar to those of a common cold or flu.

It can also be the case that the dependence developed is psychological, where an individual believes they cannot possibly cope without another dose of a specific substance.

This can often be the case with stress and addiction, as the individual may feel like they cannot withstand their current stress levels without a certain substance.

Alcohol as a depressant

Some substances have certain negatives consequences on our mental health.

Alcohol, for example, has a very specific influence on our thoughts and feelings, and overuse can severely impact an individual’s long-term worldview.

As a depressant, alcohol’s effect on the brain can be very negative. It can tinge our way of seeing things, and make us feel more anxious or depressed.

Unfortunately, this effect can play a large part in how someone may become addicted.

Using alcohol as means of dealing with stress means that, when the initial feelings of pleasure wear off and an individual is left feeling down or angry, they may feel inclined to drink again.

Drinking both lifts and puts down their mood, and perpetuates the cycle of turning to alcohol more and more frequently as a means of coping.

Healthy alternatives

If you or a loved one is struggling to cope with stress, there are alternatives to using harmful substances.

Although it can be difficult, you should only look to utilising healthy coping mechanisms to deal with stress. Examples of these healthier methods include:

1. Being more active

As well as providing a good way to break up a busy day, being active can burn off nervous energy and take your mind off the stressful parts of your day for a while.

Going for a bike ride, playing a bit of football, or going to gym are all great ways to give yourself a break from stress.

Moving your body and letting your brain rest can work wonders.

2. Opening up to friends and family

Talking to someone about your overbearing workload and hectic schedule can be a great way to release stress.

The hardest thing to deal with about stress is commonly the negative emotions that come with it, and so talking about them with a friend can be a great way to blow off steam.

Saying things out loud can also get things off your mind, and hearing someone’s perspective on something you are going through can be a good way of realising that you are not alone in whatever you are facing.

3. Planning things out

Sometimes, the root of stress can simply be feeling like you have no control. If time feels like it’s slipping away, or if it feels like everything is getting on top of you, it can be easy to panic.

Taking time out of your day to plan or arrange when and where you are going to do things can be a good method of taking the pressure off your mind.

If it’s on paper, it’s out of your mind, and you then have the headspace to think about other things for a while.

Getting help

Of course, it is easier said than done. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, it is vital to seek help.

Speaking to your GP or a specialised organisation is the best place to start looking for help. Getting advice about your specific circumstances can help point you in the direction of the most appropriate treatment.

For substance abuse, possible treatments include:

  • Talking therapies – where individuals discuss and work through their addiction-related thoughts and behaviours
  • Medicinal treatments – in the case of physical dependence, medicines can be prescribed to help ween the body off harmful substances
  • Detoxification –stopping the use of substances altogether with support

Seeking help can be scary, but it is important to begin treatment as soon as possible to maximise its effectiveness.