If you drink alcohol or use drugs like pot, it is probably because you want to change the way you feel. This is one of the main reasons why adults choose to spend their money on that rather than on something else. Maybe you want to chill out a bit and relax, have fun, or simply forget about some of the annoying and upsetting things in your life.
Alcohol or pot may help you cope with stress or anxiety in the short term. But over time, this strategy can backfire—especially if you are using it to cover up or escape from anxiety or other difficult feelings. In fact, research shows that this quick-fix method to self-medicate actually makes things worse, and puts you at greater risk of alcoholism and other problems with substance abuse. And one of the biggest costs is that you never really address the underlying problems, like anxiety. It’s still there.
A few things you may not know:
You know (or you've felt) that alcohol temporarily depresses the part of the brain we associate with inhibition. That's why it is sometimes called "liquid courage." The problem is the more you drink, the more alcohol affects the other parts of the brain, and negative emotions can start to take over. For example, with chronic and excessive drinking you may start to feel even more anxious, or flat, unmotivated, and depressed. Or you may start to feel angry and impulsive—and do things you may regret.
Over time, regular drinking can impact the delicate balance of chemicals in your brain that are needed for good mental health. Gradually, you may find regular day-to-day stress harder to deal with, leaving you more susceptible to anxiety and depression.
It can turn into a vicious cycle. Over time, you may start to feel anxious in situations that used to feel pretty easy to you, like talking to someone sober at a party. As a result, you may start to avoid these situations all together, or 'need' a few drinks or puffs to cope with the increased anxiety.
Contrary to what many believe, pot can actually increase anxiety. Some people report that smoking pot has given them severe anxiety, panic, and even paranoia.
Want to think a bit more about the role of alcohol or pot in your life?
Here are some questions you may want to ask yourself:
Do I use it to forget my problems?
Do I use it to stop feeling difficult emotions?
Am I able to have a good time without it?
Has anyone in my life asked me to stop or 'take it easy'?
Am I worried about what other people will think if I stop using?
In short, regularly relying on alcohol or drugs to ease anxiety can be a slippery slope. A better plan is to develop a wider range of healthier coping strategies—such as:
Exercise to blow off steam and decrease stress.
Having a hot bath or shower, listening to music, or other ways to relax. Consider developing a list of your top 5-10 de-stressors that you can "go to" when urges to use pop up. Be sure to include ideas that are easy to use including ideas that cost little and can be found in may places, such as, making a cup of tea or calling a friend.
Talking to a friend, a trusted adult, or a counsellor. Feeling heard and just talking through your problems with someone who really gets you feels good.
And for long term help, start addressing your anxiety by using the many tools available to you on this website.
Always be aware of why you are drinking or using drugs. If you aren't ready to stop or cut back—see if you can be honest with yourself about why you like it so much. Or why you need it.
About the author
Anxiety Canada promotes awareness of anxiety disorders and increases access to proven resources. Visit www.anxietycanada.com.