Why you shouldn’t turn to drinking when stressed
No one can deny that these are stressful times. There’s no shortage of worries while living our everyday lives, and it can feel tempting to turn to something less than healthy, like drinking too much when stressed. Dede Norungolo, outpatient therapist, explained why you should not turn to alcohol during stressful times and suggested healthier methods for relieving stress instead.
Why do people turn to alcohol or other substances when stressed or upset?
“The use of alcohol or other substances that can cause mental and physical impairment often starts out because people simply like how they make them feel,” said Norungolo.
Those who struggle with social anxiety or feeling comfortable in a group setting might feel like the use of alcohol takes away the edge of their anxiety and makes it easier for them to speak up, blend in and make new friends. Others may be trying to use alcohol or another substance to forget or simply delay thinking about their problems.
Those who may develop alcoholism or become addicted to a substance often are those prone to seek out new sensations or are sociable or rebellious in nature.
Is drinking a little too much really a problem?
“Alcohol or substance use can feel like a reasonable way to relieve stress, but continued consumption of alcohol beyond reasonable amounts can cause serious physical problems over time,” said Norungolo. “And this damage can build up over time even if you don’t turn to binge drinking or drinking a lot in one sitting.”
While many are aware that liver damage, conditions such as cirrhosis or jaundice and eventual liver failure are possible consequences of overuse of alcohol and other substances, alcohol can have a damaging effect nearly everywhere within the body, including:
- Suppressing your immune system, leading to getting sick more often and more severely
- Inhibiting bone growth and making muscular cramps more likely
- Erectile dysfunction and inhibited hormone production
- Struggles with infertility
- Increased risk of breast cancer
- Heart disease or other circulatory conditions
- Stomach ulcers, gastritis and other digestive system ailments
- Impaired memory and changes in personality or behavior
- Severe, potentially dangerous withdrawal
What are warning signs that you might be drinking too much?
“There are a few things to watch for that are signs that your drinking or use of substances could become problematic or impact your health,” said Norungolo.
Signs that you might be drinking too much include:
- Drinking in private or alone
- Experiencing blackouts, or a temporary loss of consciousness or memory
- Experiencing short-term memory loss
- Making excuses to explain your drinking or substance use such as saying you need it to relax
- Lying or being dishonest about the amount you drink
- Electing to drink or use substances over your daily obligations or responsibilities
- Changing your appearance or social group to be with others who also tend to use alcohol or other substances
The shift from a “could have a drink or not” attitude to one of really looking forward to the use of substances or alcohol can be a sign of your alcohol or substance use moving from low-risk to possibly high-risk or moving toward becoming dependent.
Ideas for handling stress in a healthy way
“Often, I will say, ‘if not alcohol or another substance, then what is the next healthy thing?’ We often do need something to substitute in place of alcohol or substance use,” said Norungolo. “Every individual is going to have a different coping mechanism that works for them that might not work for other people.”
For some, making the decision to commit to only low-risk drinking guidelines – such as limiting the number of drinks per week or choosing to never drink unless with a trusted friend or loved one – may be a good starting point for cutting down on overall use.
After that, individuals should focus on figuring out what works for them instead of alcohol or substance use. For some, taking up walking or running (with its resulting release of endorphins) can both improve overall health and lessen stress. Others may choose to pick up activities such as sports, photography, knitting, writing, cooking or any other hobby or skill that helps to calm their mind and body.
There are also a variety of support groups – such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Celebrate Recovery, SMART Recovery or FAVOR Upstate – that can help individuals with networking with others who are working to stop drinking or substance use, as well as providing resources and support to help someone move from feeling curious about quitting to living sober.
How to know if you should seek treatment to stop drinking when stressed
“A trusted way to assess whether you have drifted into the high-risk alcohol use is to use the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT),” said Norungolo. “This test is available online or through a substance use assessment with a licensed addiction counselor or an alcohol and drug counselor.”
If you’re concerned about your drinking, speak with your doctor and ask about resources that may be available to you to help you cut down or stop entirely, including counseling.
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