Updated on February 6, 2024
9 min read

Is It Dangerous to Use Substances as a Coping Mechanism?

Substance Use as a Coping Mechanism

Many people use substances as a coping mechanism. They might order a drink to unwind after a long day, to escape feelings of grief, or to forget painful memories.

Turning to substances to cope puts you at risk physically, emotionally, and mentally. Although it’s possible to use a substance to cope without becoming a serious problem, it’s better to learn to manage difficult emotions without this support. 

Doing so reduces your risk of heavier use of a substance. It also allows you to work through your emotions and live a more fulfilling life. 

Why Do People Use Substances as a Coping Mechanism?

People use substances as a coping mechanism because it’s initially easier than dealing with a problem. Substances offer escape and allow one to forget about what’s going on.

Using a substance numbs you to discomfort. Instead of working on the issue, you can use a substance and procrastinate fixing the problem.

Substances may help you or appear to enable you to:

  • More easily manage difficult emotions, including sadness, loneliness, and anger
  • Feel physically better (at least temporarily)
  • Reduce anxiety
  • Cope with unpleasant memories
  • Face situations that might otherwise be frightening
  • Help you extend focus
  • Ward off boredom
  • Take the edge off
  • Manage stress
  • Ease physical pain
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Dangers of Substance Use as a Coping Mechanism

The dangers of substance use as a coping mechanism include:

  • Injury
  • Overdose
  • Substance use disorders
  • Risk of assault
  • Higher likelihood of engaging in risky sexual behavior
  • Chronic disease
  • Impaired judgment
  • DUI/DWI
  • STDs
  • Unwanted pregnancy

How Can Substance Misuse Escalate into Addiction?

People who misuse substances are at risk of developing addiction. This is true even if their use of a substance is initially occasional.

Continued misuse of alcohol or other substances causes progressive changes called neuroadaptations to occur in the brain. These neuroadaptations compromise brain function. They also drive the transition from controlled, occasional substance use to chronic misuse.

Over time, this weakens connectivity to the prefrontal cortex, which is the seat of executive functioning. These changes in the brain persist long after substance use stops. 

Even when someone is not inebriated, they might suffer from impaired judgment, difficulty making decisions, and impulse control.2

Addiction as a Disorder

Research shows that addiction to alcohol or drugs is a chronic brain disease. It has a high potential for recurrence and recovery. 

Addiction is a mental health disorder. It is categorized as such by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the American Psychological Association (APA)3, which published the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM 5).4

An estimated 10% of the population in the US has developed alcohol use disorder within the past year, but less than 19% of them receive treatment. Of the 10% of people with AUD, no specific excuse is required for them to cope using alcohol or other substances.

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Recognizing and Addressing Substance Use

Possible signs someone is struggling with substance misuse include:

  • Problems at work or school
  • Lack of energy
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Lack of motivation
  • Neglected appearance
  • Behavioral changes
  • Financial issues without any other reasonable explanation

Symptoms of addiction include:

  • Desire to use a substance regularly, perhaps daily or several times a day
  • Intense urges for the substance
  • Needing greater amounts of the substance to achieve the same effect
  • Increased amounts of the drug over a longer period than intended
  • Ensuring a supply of the substance
  • Buying the substance, even if they can't afford it
  • Not meeting obligations and responsibilities
  • Continuing to use the substance, even though it's causing problems or harm
  • Doing things to get the substance that you normally wouldn't do, such as stealing
  • Engaging in risky behavior while under the influence of a substance
  • Failing to stop the use of the substance, even if you have a desire to do so
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you stop using the substance

How to Help Someone Who's Self-Medicating

There are many ways you can encourage someone who is turning to substances to self-medicate to get healthy. 

For example:

  • Do not enable their substance use by protecting them from consequences
  • Help them understand that you care about them and want what’s best for them (but allow the consequences of their substance use to have a full impact)
  • Offer unconditional love
  • Set boundaries and stand by them
  • Encourage your loved one to seek help
  • Assist them in finding treatment resources available to them
  • Consider attending Al-anon meetings or speaking to a therapist to help you learn how to cope

Support for someone with a substance use problem includes:

  • Acknowledging that addiction is a chronic disease and that substance use disorder is not a flaw
  • Encouraging them to seek treatment without pushing or forcing them
  • Avoiding staged interventions if possible but be willing to engage in one if it’s the best option
  • Never shaming or humiliating your loved one
  • Listening without judgment when your loved one opens up to you
  • Helping them remove or overcome barriers to getting the help they need

Treatment Options for Substance Misuse

Inpatient Treatment

Inpatient treatment for addiction provides round-the-clock supervision. Individuals live at the facility and participate in daily activities focused on recovery. These programs allow complete focus on recovery.

Outpatient Treatment

Outpatient treatment can follow inpatient treatment or be used independently in recovery. Program participants attend treatment daily or several times a week. They live away from the treatment facility. Most include several hours per week of recovery activities.

12-Step Programs

12-step programs provide step-by-step assistance with recovery. There is no medical supervision. These programs can be used alone or in conjunction with other treatment options.

How Do Rehabilitation Centers Help?

Medical detox rehabilitation centers help substance use patients manage withdrawal symptoms safely. They ensure that those beginning recovery are monitored for medical emergencies.

Properly supervised detox programs also reduce the risk of relapse during this recovery phase. Detox is usually immediately followed by therapy.

Attending therapy at a rehabilitation center ensures you are treated and surrounded by people who understand addiction. This type of support is essential for long-term recovery.

What Medications Help With Substance Dependence?

Several medications are available to help with substance dependence, including:

  • Acamprosate (Campral): Reduces alcohol consumption and increases abstinence rates
  • Disulfiram (Antabuse): Causes unpleasant reactions, such as nausea, headache, and flushing, when taken with alcohol
  • Naltrexone (Revia, Vivitrol): Blocks the opioid receptors in the brain, reducing the rewarding and craving effects of alcohol
  • Topiramate (Topamax, Trokendi XR, Qudexy XR): Modulates the activity of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, reducing alcohol consumption and dependence

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Healthy Coping Alternatives 

Many healthier coping strategies provide alternatives to using substances. What works for one person might not work for another. Trying different methods is important until you find the ones that work for you and help you avoid substance use.

Healthy coping skills include:

  • Breathing exercises
  • Artistic endeavors
  • Physical exercise
  • Going for a walk
  • Calling a loved one
  • Listening to music
  • Using affirmations
  • Listening to a guided meditation
  • Taking a nap
  • Journaling
  • Cooking or baking
  • Learning a new skill
  • Reading
  • Self-care activities

What Are Adaptive Coping Skills?

Adaptive coping skills allow someone to deal with stress using personal growth, optimism, and flexibility. Healthy coping mechanisms allow someone to focus on problem-solving instead of escape.

Adaptive coping skills include:

  • Reaching out for support
  • Changing one’s expectations
  • Regulating stressful emotions
  • Taking action to reduce stress, such as meditation or breathing exercises
  • Changing how one thinks about a stressful trigger
  • Healthy physical activity, such as yoga or exercising
  • Practicing mindfulness (being fully present, aware, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by external factors)

How Can Professional Mental Health Services Help?

Mental health professionals help you determine why you make your choices and develop new, healthier coping skills.

People often turn to substances because they don’t realize they have other options. They might not understand the control they have over their emotions and reactions, or they might struggle to make decisions that are in their best interest. 

In other cases, someone with substance misuse problems may seek out reasons to use and misuse alcohol and other intoxicants.

Professionals who understand substance misuse can provide healthy solutions. They’ll also help someone develop the confidence to prioritize their health and well-being.

What Are the Health Implications of Substance Misuse?

Mental health concerns associated with substance abuse include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Learning and memory problems
  • Social problems
  • Insomnia
  • Mood problems
  • Paranoia
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions

Physical health concerns associated with substance abuse include:

  • Coordination problems
  • Dizziness
  • Digestive issues
  • Insomnia
  • Appetite changes
  • Blood pressure changes
  • Cardiovascular problems
  • Seizures
  • Coma
  • Increased risk of cancer
  • Liver health issues
  • Pancreatitis
  • Dental problems
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Sensory issues, such as loss of smell
  • Infections
  • Collapsed veins
  • Kidney health issues
  • Overdose

How Does Stress Influence Substance Misuse?

Studies show that stressful situations and chronic stress increase a person’s risk of addiction. It also increases the risk of relapse.1

The earlier in life someone is exposed to stress, the higher their risk. Exposure to such stress early in life, as well as the accumulation of stress, results in the following changes:

  • Neuroendocrine
  • Physiological
  • Behavioral
  • Subjective 

These changes affect the development of brain systems involved in learning, motivation, and stress-related adaptive behaviors.1

These developments are why children need to learn skills to cope with their complex emotions. They’ll have tools that make them less likely to turn to substances when they encounter stress.

Stress can also make it more difficult to overcome substance misuse. It also increases the risk of relapse once someone has recovered. People with substance abuse problems will likely consider alcohol or drug use when faced with stress, even years after getting clean. 

Why Do Negative Emotions Push Some Towards Substance Use?

People use substances to numb their emotions. Feeling negative emotions like depression and anxiety is difficult. If someone doesn’t learn how to cope with these emotions early in life, they’ll struggle in adolescence and adulthood when they have easy access to substances.

When someone feels uncomfortable because of a difficult emotion, and they don’t know what to do about it, substances offer a fast and easy solution. Drinking or using a drug dulls emotions. It also distracts users from difficult emotions. 

Summary

Many people turn to substances like alcohol or drugs to help them cope. There are many reasons for this, but the bottom line is substances offer a quick fix. Unfortunately, people who use substances to self-medicate or deal with uncomfortable emotions do more harm than good.

If you or a loved one uses substances to cope, it’s important to recognize and address the situation as early as possible. Learning new and healthy coping mechanisms is attainable. Doing so before an addiction develops makes it easier to change. 

There are plenty of effective treatments and better coping strategies available. Seeking help and support can prevent a severe problem from developing. But even if you’ve been turning to substances for years to cope, getting help and recovering is still possible.

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Updated on February 6, 2024
6 sources cited
Updated on February 6, 2024
  1. Sinha, R. “Chronic Stress, Drug Use, and Vulnerability to Addiction.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 2008. 

  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “THE NEUROBIOLOGY of SUBSTANCE USE, MISUSE, and ADDICTION.” Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General's Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health, 2016. 

  3. Substance use, abuse, and addiction.” American Psychological Association, 2022.             

  4. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.” American Psychiatric Association, 2022. 

  5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “The Cycle of Alcohol Addiction.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2021. 

  6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Understanding Drug Use and Addiction Drug Facts.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2018.

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