If you ask your peers, more than one of them turns to alcohol as a coping mechanism when they feel anxious or stressed. While most people see this as something harmless, alcohol dependence can often arise from alcohol as a coping mechanism. Whether someone turns to alcohol for social anxiety or has the tendency to have a drink after a long day at work, this recurrency can change someone’s brain chemistry and place them at risk of developing a substance use disorder.
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What Are Coping Mechanisms?
Coping mechanisms are activities or reactions people use to deal with something difficult for them. Overall, these coping mechanisms can be healthy reactions that can protect someone’s mental health at the moment. Unfortunately, there are unhealthy coping mechanisms, like alcohol, that only provide temporary relief and can lead to long-term adverse effects.
The Relationship Between Stress and Alcohol
When our bodies experience stress, it shifts its normal metabolic processes into high gear. Suddenly, our bodies get a surge of cortisol, which increases glucose levels and starts mobilizing fat and protein. A healthy body will have a quick spike of cortisol levels, followed by a rapid decrease once the stress is over.
However, alcohol triggers our bodies to release higher amounts of cortisol. This resets what our brains think are normal levels of this hormone. When alcohol shifts the average hormonal balance, the body changes its stress responses.
Unfortunately, alcohol prevents our bodies from going back to their normal state, forcing it to set a new idea of adequately functioning. This unique balance increases the risk of disease, including alcoholism. Additionally, researchers have linked cortisol to the development of metabolic disorders and psychiatric disorders such as depression.
The Rise of Using Alcohol as a Coping Mechanism
In times of crisis, it’s relatively common for people to use alcohol as a coping mechanism. It’s not surprising that with the COVID-19 pandemic, off-premise alcohol sales were up 55%, while online alcohol sales rose 243%. Although a large portion of this increase was due to people stocking up. Research shows that alcohol abuse disorders tend to increase during crises and uncertainty.
Men and women who report higher levels of stress also are more likely to drink more. Stressed men are 1.5 times more likely to engage in binge drinking than women. Those who turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism may lack adaptive coping skills that usually help us work through the challenges instead of masking them. Sometimes when people are cut off from other healthy mechanisms like going to the gym, they can also turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms like drinking.
Dangers of Using Alcohol as a Coping Mechanism
Of course, a healthy person should not be worried about having an occasional drink. However, even for a healthy individual, alcohol can exacerbate mental health issues, increase risk-taking behavior, lead to domestic violence, and more.
Excessive drinking is never good for one’s health, as it impacts the immune system and compromises the brain’s ability to cope with stress naturally. Stress drinking can lead to an alcohol use disorder that even causes someone to experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
- Addiction. Always turning to alcohol as a coping mechanism can cause a physical dependence on alcohol. If not addressed it can develop into a full-blown addiction. When someone begins to use alcohol to function correctly, it can lead to severe consequences.
- Damage Relationships. Alcohol can contribute to angriness, irresponsible behaviors, and other behavioral problems that can damage your relationship with a partner, friends, coworkers, or family members.
- Failure to Develop Adaptive Coping Skills. Always turning to alcohol to cope with stress or anxiety can negatively impact someone’s ability to develop adaptive or effective coping strategies that can serve them long-term.
Alternative Healthy Coping Mechanisms
Clearly, when it comes to finding a healthy way to deal with stress and anxiety, drinking alcohol is not the answer. For those in addiction recovery, using alcohol as a coping mechanism can set them down the path of addiction all over again. Instead, it’s vital to look for creative ways to deal with stress, grief, and anxiety in a way that won’t harm your health or sobriety.
Here are some healthy alternative methods of coping you should try:
- Eat healthily
- Walk around every 30 minutes or so
- Set a schedule
- Distract yourself from the news
- Take up a hobby like knitting or painting
- Learn something new
- Call someone
- Limit your social media and news exposure
- Reach out for help when needed
- Practice breathing techniques
- Attend a group meeting
If you or someone you know keeps using alcohol as a coping mechanism and has developed a substance use disorder, please know there’s help available. Sometimes it’s essential to go back and find the root of the problem. Even if you live a lifestyle with high-stress levels, there might be something else triggering you to reach alcohol. Speaking with a therapist can be quite helpful. They can help you understand your alcohol consumption patterns and teach you healthy coping skills that don’t jeopardize your sobriety and health.