Unhealthy Escapes

‘I need a drink!’ ‘I’ve had a hard day. I need a nice big meal — or a cigarette!’

Sometimes, in the face of stress, and often without even realizing it, we use drugs, alcohol and even food to ‘self-medicate.’ Self-medication is defined as abusing a substance as a way to relieve pain, anxiety, sleeplessness or other symptoms of (what might possibly be) an emotional disorder.

Self-medication becomes a problem when it takes on a life of its own. Let’s say you drink alcohol to reduce anxiety over some particular aspect of your life. Instead of doing something about it, you just continue to drink. Of course, not doing anything about those problems results in greater anxiety. So what’s next? Drink more! The cycle continues until the drinking (or eating, or whatever) becomes a bigger part of life than thinking and problem solving, and things begin to spiral into emotional paralysis. Legendary poet and author Edgar Allen Poe hits the nail on the head: ‘I became insane with long periods of horrible sanity. During these fits ‘ I drank. As a matter of course, the enemies referred the insanity to the drink, rather than the drink to the insanity.’

The same applies to other self-medicating behaviors such as drug abuse, compulsive shopping, compulsive gambling, overeating, or just about any other ‘unhealthy escape.’ It’s not the method by which you choose to escape; what matters is WHAT you’re escaping. Once you identify that, you can truthfully tell yourself, “I’m free to resume thinking and problem solving. I can do it on my own, or I can hire or find others to do it — not FOR me — but with me. My capacity to think is obviously rusty, but it’s still there. If I re-learn how to embrace my problem solving skills, I won’t be so terrified at the thought of ending my compulsive behavior.”

Thinking about your mind and your emotions can help resolve lots of issues, even when the self-medication is a particularly nasty physical addiction such as nicotine. As any smoker or ex-smoker knows, ‘Nicotine dependence,’ according to mayoclinic.com, ‘is an addiction to tobacco products’. Nicotine produces physical and mood-altering effects ‘ that are temporarily pleasing. These effects spur the continued use of tobacco and lead to dependence. Quitting tobacco use causes irritability and anxiety.’

Notice how self-defeating nicotine dependence is! People smoke because of the pleasing, mood-altering effects. But any attempt to cut back results in greater irritability and anxiety. Leaving aside the sometimes fatal consequences, the psychology of smoking is not very effective even on its own terms. The only way it would make sense to smoke, from a mental health point-of-view, would be if you could consume ever-increasing amounts of nicotine throughout your entire life, which of course isn’t possible.

Attempts to quit these various unhealthy escapes will often fail. People conclude that they ‘just don’t have the willpower.’ So, what gives rise to willpower? Willpower is generally defined as strength, determination and commitment to the value of something, such as one’s life or health. These qualities emanate from the mind. If you don’t engage in personal introspection and maybe even some counseling, it will be very hard to figure out what’s motivating you to continue the problem behaviors. Look for explanations, not excuses. ‘I don’t have the willpower to stop my habit’ is an excuse. The explanation is that you probably lack the motivation or the commitment to stop your bad habit. Armed with that revelation, you can develop your motivation and commitment by spending more time thinking about what is, and isn’t, important to you. You can’t exercise willpower without first indulging in mind power.

Quiet reflection will probably reveal that you medicate yourself with food, nicotine or other such things because you’re trying to lower anxiety and stress. You then have the opportunity to do two things: First, to figure out how to reduce that stress. And then, learn to better handle stress by looking at things differently. People who self-medicate usually haven’t done this, at least not enough. Instead, they feel badly about their habits, condemning themselves for them — but maintaining the habits anyway. On the surface, they’re being hard on themselves (intensifying the anxiety or depression even further), rather than stopping to think about different ways to handle their problems. I’ve told many a recovering alcoholic or other addict, ‘You were not wrong to try and make your life happier and easier. It’s normal and natural to want to do that. The problem is that the way you went about it just didn’t work.’

It’s really true. Life is full of stress and challenge. If we didn’t have any, we’d probably create some. That’s because some of us are worriers, and others are creators. Still others are a combination of both. No matter what kind of personality you are, life will have its stress, and it’s normal and natural to want to self-medicate. The challenge is to own up to it by making balanced and rational decisions to resolve the underlying causes.