Alcohol and drugs as coping strategies are right up there together with Eating Disorders as among the most life-threatening, harmful ways to deal with life. The definition of a coping strategy is: Any thought, feeling or behaviour that allows us to remain in an uncomfortable situation without being aware of how uncomfortable we are.
It’s clear, from that definition, that food, alcohol and drugs can fit the bill.
Now to be fair, food, alcohol and some drugs also have their place in a healthy, balanced life. Obviously we need to eat to live – and, while they’re fine in moderation, we don’t need doughnuts and certainly not 12 of them at once. Likewise, not permitting our body to have the nutrients it requires to keep us in optimum health isn’t serving us either.
A drink every now and then at a special function or social gathering is no big deal, even if we’re doing it to loosen up a little.Needing to drink in order to go to a function, or drinking on a daily basis, or drinking to get drunk is definitely a sign of coping rather than balance.
And sometimes we do need prescription drugs to deal with chemical imbalances or other concerns. The body is a complex organism and sometimes certain things don’t work the way they should. I encourage you to release any shame or judgement you may be carrying toward yourself for needing any sort of medication to deal with something that our body needs help to do naturally. Where drugs become a problem is when:
- There is a natural remedy or solution that will resolve the problem entirely but we choose drugs and thus have a bandaid solution rather than a true healing. Often but certainly not always (see above) Anti-depressants and Anti-anxiety medications fit this category: In these cases there is a valid reason for you to feel anxious and depressed and until that underlying reason is resolved the depression and anxiety won’t go away, it will only be masked by the medication. In these cases it is imperative that you identify and resolve the underlying trigger so that you are then free to choose when and if to come off your medication and to see that you can now handle stress without becoming anxious or depressed.
- We use them to numb out to stressful life events (whether in the past, the present or anticipated future stresses).
Certain kinds of drugs make us want to eat when we’re not hungry. Others make us forget that we even have a body and send us into orbit where, for days, we can completely tune out to any signals of hunger we may be receiving. Others still, make us feel so queasy or unsettled in the various stages of getting high and coming down that we don’t want to eat because we don’t trust we could keep it down. Or we feel drawn to eat foods that are high in sugar and fat content but low in any nutrient value just to shut our body up so that we can keep on drinking, toking, snorting or shooting.
Either way, we’re certainly not honoring ourselves or our body when we ignore its natural signals of hunger, fullness, fatigue and pain in favor of completely numbing out to the world as we experience it. (Here, I’m inviting you to consider the possibility that the way you perceive the world may not be entirely accurate and may actually be harming you.)
But, if we come back to our definition of a coping strategy we see that as mechanisms to help us not be aware of the underlying disease and discomfort in our lives, alcohol and drugs work like a hot damn. The only problem is they don’t resolve anything and they create problems of their own – just like the use of food to cope: It doesn’t make the original problem better and it creates its own overwhelming stress and depression which leads us to need to numb out even more.
If you know that you are drinking or using some form of drug, whether prescription or street, to keep you detached from your life then on some level you’ve bought in to some “Learned Helplessness.”
Learned Helplessness is a way of perceiving the world that underlies everything you do, say, think and feel. There are variations on the theme but over all it sounds something like this:
“I can’t do anything to change X.”
“I am powerless to do anything about X”
“There is nothing I can do about X so I just have to find a way to be okay with it.”
This learned helplessness story is at the root of our use of harmful coping strategies. Remember, a coping strategy is anything that allows us to remain in a harmful situation without being aware of how harmful it is. So, if you are telling yourself that there is something that is bothering you in some way but that you are powerless to do anything about it, what are your options?
- Be aware of your discomfort eternally and of your powerlessness and feel increasingly anxious and overwhelmed as a result.
- or Numb out! And Pretend it isn’t happening/didn’t happen or that it doesn’t/didn’t really bother you.
Neither is a really exciting option. Neither option is going to make us feel better in any meaningful, lasting way. But, if those are the only options we believe we have we’ll take #2 any day any time – we all would.
If you’ve chosen option # 2 there is nothing wrong with you. You are doing your best to cope with a situation that you’ve told yourself you have no power over. You simply haven’t yet come across option # 3. But you’re about to!
- Be open to the possibility that you’ve told yourself that “X” didn’t bother you and that there’s nothing you can do about it anyway.
- See how it really did hurt you and that you have a good reason to feel anxious because that happened and because you’re telling yourself it’s beyond your power to change it or stop it.
- See how your anxiety from that Learned Helplessness story leads you to need food and body image focus, drugs and/or alcohol just to keep yourself from going off the deep end.
- Trust that someone can teach you how to deal with “X” in such a way that you actually can do something about it; you actually do have power over whether it happens and how you respond to yourself and others when it does.
- Allow yourself to begin to receive support to let go of your Learned Helplessness story and to learn how to create the most peaceful and passionate life possible and to deal with life’s natural stresses in a way that enhances your self-esteem and reinforces your belief that the world is a safe place for you to bring all of yourself and to be the very very best you can be at all times!
If Option #3 sounds like something you’d like to experience in your life, even if you doubt your ability to have a life like the one I’ve described, let us gently guide you from where you are now to where you truly deserve to be. And know that if any part of you is doubting your ability to have a peaceful and passionate life that is free from food and body image stress or alcohol or drugs, that’s only the learned helplessness kicking in and it’s going to kick in until you prove to yourself that it’s wrong and you are capable.
Don’t let the old nasty learned helplessness mindset prevent you from reaching out and moving forward with your life. Remember we’ve been there. We know firsthand that all of these harmful coping strategies can be overcome and left behind once and for all.