Why ‘Self-Medication’ Can Be Detrimental In Combating Your Anxiety
If you were an alien landing on Earth for the first time during this pandemic and you were tasked with figuring out what “alcohol” is by looking through social media, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s some kind of delicious cure-all panacea that makes people happy and better able to deal with hard situations.
The truth, as we all know but often prefer to forget, is that alcohol is an addictive toxin that poisons your body. Neurologically speaking, it amplifies the effects of inhibitory transmitter Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) in the brain, which causes slurred speech, clumsy movements, and bad decisions. It’s a depressant. But that hasn’t stopped everyone from using it to self-medicate during lockdowns.
Conan O’Brien tweets that “we all agree to temporarily raise the bar for what’s considered an ‘alcoholic.’”
Ina Garten, of Food Network fame, lovingly crafts an extra-large cocktail, consisting of three whole cups of hard liquor and some other ingredients, at 9:30 am.
My next-door neighbor Pam has joked on three separate occasions about how she’s got a killer quarantini recipe she’s been practicing every night. Everyone has been laughingly bragging about how much they’re self-medicating during lockdown, and no, I’m hardly talking about alcohol alone.
It’s impossible to turn on TV, browse Instagram, scroll through your social feeds or even enjoy a phone call with a friend without coming across these incredibly stressful subjects. That, combined with how we view alcohol as a society, means that when you’re put under any kind of ongoing pressure like we’ve been subjected to recently, the first support pillar we turn to is the one that can make us feel numb and happy, even if just for a few hours.
So, what’s the problem with that?
Alcohol actually makes your mental health worse
As I write this, the fervor and fears around the election are heightening. The coronavirus is reaching the second wave in Europe, and the never-ending wave in the States is rising yet again. Social unrest continues to flare up. We’re all lonely and bored from working at home these past months. The healthcare crisis, the looming potential financial crisis, the possibility of a contested vote count — it all feels like it’s out of my control, and that stresses me out.
I’m not alone, either. A fascinating survey from Recovery Village demonstrates that the laundry list of stressful events happening this year has had a severe impact on mental health across both sides of the aisle. Respondents, no matter whether Democratic, Republican, or Independent, are saying that these ongoing crises have a very real effect on mental health.
This is what is driving us to imbibe. Culturally, there’s this idea that alcohol is a problem solver. And when our problems start to feel like they’re too much to overcome, well, we turn to alcohol. The same survey from Recovery Village shows that for over 60% of all respondents, the primary reason for drug or alcohol use was a way to cope with stress. Nearly 40% of New Yorkers have recently reported that they’re drinking while working from home.
“The COVID-19 outbreak has been emotionally dysregulating for everyone, and many people have come to the painful realization that they really struggle with sitting still, getting quiet, or otherwise knowing how to calm themselves — or as we would say in the mental health world, self-soothe,” psychotherapist Jean M. Campbell tells Health. In other words, the collective and individual sources of anxiety we feel are pushing us over the brink, and many of us are turning to the only tool we really know how to use.
But research shows that alcohol exacerbates these issues, long-term. It doesn’t actually solve stress, it simply lets us bury our heads in the sand for a couple of blissful hours. We wake up the next day and everything’s the way we left it. Except because it’s a depressant, we might feel slightly worse. So that night, we might drink a little more. In high-stress situations, like those most people are in right now, it’s a very scary feedback loop that’s hard to escape from.
Meanwhile, long-term use of alcohol can lead to a long list of additional physical and mental health issues: liver disease, obesity, breast cancer, accidents and a wide range of cardiovascular problems, including high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation, stroke and heart attack. It dehydrates you, it affects your sleep, and it compromises your immune system. Physically and mentally, there’s no real upside to using alcohol as a way to solve problems.
Beyond boozing, the Recovery Village data says that nearly 40% of us are smoking weed, with opioids, benzos and stimulants also alarmingly popular among respondents.
For many of us, the quandary is that it’s all we know. It’s what our favorite characters on TV do; it’s how our favorite musicians sing about dealing with their problems. Plus, a lot of our typical healthier self-soothing mechanisms aren’t available. I can’t go visit my friends right now, and I can’t go to the gym. What can I do instead?
What you can do instead
By now, we’ve established that the reality for a lot of Americans is that we’re living in a sort of extended crisis mode, and our normal crisis management tools aren’t available. Instead, we’ve turned to self-medicating, to such an extent that it’s practically a meme in and of itself how much it gets joked about on social media.
Our support networks are failing. Our anxiety levels are skyrocketing. At least personally, it feels like everything is spiraling out of control. While I’m not opposed to the occasional drink, it’s when you use it as a way to numb yourself over time that it starts to get problematic — and that’s what we’re seeing.
That’s when it’s time to turn to internal, self-sufficient coping mechanisms that actually help you feel better and ultimately get better. It might not be as trendy as pouring an oversized glass of wine, but it’s a lot more useful.
Here are the alternative strategies I recommend to my clients to improve their mental health and stop relying on drugs and alcohol to self-medicate.
Focus on doing what you love
This is the most important one. This strategy shows up consistently in the CDC’s advice for coping with Covid, the NHS’s guide to becoming happier, and The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists’s guide to self-care for people with anxiety disorders, to name a few sources.
The critical note is, it has to be something you actually love, not something that makes you feel good in the moment. For example, one of my clients loves baking — but he’s prone to using food to comfort himself. One of his successful strategies to self-soothe was to start a baking ritual. Twice a week, he takes the time to craft something with his hands that he’s passionate about. It reconnects him to his passion, and it’s also helped him enjoy the food he creates rather than just mindlessly snarfing it down, because he’s aware of the work that’s gone into it.
Find something you love, and be careful to dodge instant gratification. Examples include reading excellent books, spending time with friends, writing, photography, and furniture shopping. There’s no one hobby that’s perfect for everyone, so take a few minutes, hours or even days to consider what brings you joy. It’s true that working from home frees us up for day drinking, but it also frees us up for pursuing our hobbies and genuine enjoyments.
Get comfortable with not being up to date
Back in 2016, a therapist named Dr. Steven Stosny coined the term “headline stress disorder” in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. A year later, the American Psychological Association found that constant consumption of the news cycle was a major contributor to the high levels of stress most Americans were feeling. Now, things are even worse.
There’s a nasty feedback loop happening in our brains right now. First, we feel like circumstances are beyond our control, so we’re seeking out as much information as we can. Second, things are changing very quickly. The pandemic and election news cycles mean that if you flick on the TV, there’s probably an update. Finally, this combines to mean that we all feel like if we turn away for one second, we’ll miss something important. Being glued to our screens is the one thing that’s helping us feel in control right now.
But because things are still changing at a manic pace, and we’re still not driving the train, it only exacerbates our symptoms. We’re still helpless.
Instead, accept that there are only a few actions you can do — physical distancing, wearing a mask, being sure to vote, and helping others do the same. Other than that, it’s out of your hands. After you’ve faced that difficult reality, give yourself permission to look away. You will miss poll results. You will miss vaccine trial news. But you won’t actually miss anything critical — and it will have a huge benefit on your mental health if you manage to decouple your emotions from the news cycle, even if just for a few hours.
Instead, fill your hands with something else. Journal, bake, paint, cook, walk, dance. Pick an activity that doesn’t allow screens, and enjoy it as much as you can. The news will be there when you come back.
Find some structure that works for you
Being at home adrift during a pandemic and a wild election means the rules are gone. You can play video games at 8 am; you can have wine at noon. The pandemic has us feeling a little bit like we’re in an airport, where time isn’t real and rules don’t exist.
Dr. Solhkhah, M.D., a clinical contributor to Hackensack Meridian Health, explains that routines “can create a positive level of stress that keeps us focused and may avoid some of the depression that many people may experience as a result of the COVID pandemic, isolation, fear, and uncertainty.” That’s why he recommends “creating and maintaining routines that you can follow even in quarantine that will help reduce the mental health impact of what we are experiencing.”
Adding structure back into your life is one of the healthiest ways to help yourself cope that doesn’t involve intoxicants. You can try a number of different strategies to create a schedule, but I recommend starting with what you want to accomplish each day and fitting it in like that. These goals shouldn’t be huge. For example, my list includes “10-minute walk” and “getting dressed.” It’s just designed to give you a better sense of balance and control into your own life.
It’s no surprise that so many Americans have turned to alcohol to cope with the exhaustive pressure of coping with a pandemic and a stressful election year. It’s also no surprise that people are joking about it online — we’ve often turned to avoidant techniques to cope with stress, and especially in turbulent times when everything feels scary and our usual support networks have been hamstrung, it can feel like there’s no other choice.
The truth is most substances that we use to help cope, whether drugs or alcohol, usually make matters worse. There are healthier coping mechanisms that can actually help you feel better and get better — you just have to be willing to put in the time to find and cultivate them. The best place to start is to prioritize your passion by focusing on activities you genuinely enjoy. Then, give yourself permission to be out of date when it comes to the news, even if just for a couple hours at a time. Finally, try to rework the structure that the pandemic ripped from many of us, even if it features very humble goals like showering and brushing your teeth.
These pillars of self-care can’t solve a pandemic or predict an election, but neither does drinking. At the very least, they’ll help you cope with the enormous number of stressors in your life right now, one step at a time.
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