Substance Use Management
Mental illness can be debilitating. Many who struggle with mental illness feel pressure to carry on with life and uphold responsibilities while in agony inside. It’s no surprise then that many who struggle with mental illness want to numb the pain so that they are able to get up and face the world. Substance abuse hardly ever exists alone. There is often an underlying factor that contributes to the need to want to use a substance. For instance, you may be suffering from depression that slows you down at work, and in an attempt to feel energized, you may want to consume alcohol. Or maybe you struggle with social anxiety. In this case you may want to smoke weed to loosen up and enjoy a house party. Whatever the underlying factor is, it is often strong enough that it draws you to your substance of choice even when you know it is harmful for you.
But you may not be ready to give it up entirely just yet. That’s ok. It is important to take steps that align with what feels right for you in order to increase the chances of you meeting your goals. If you believe you’re now at a point where you are ready to make some changes, but maybe not stop entirely, you may benefit from reading the following recommendations. For the purpose of this discussion, I will use the word “substance” in reference to any harmful behaviour that is used to cope with a stressor. Common examples are drugs, alcohol, food, social media, Netflix, sex, etc.
I want to clarify that there is a difference between substance use and addiction. An addiction often involves several accompanying symptoms such as tolerance, dependency, associated health issues, etc., while substance use is simply using a substance to cope with a particular stressor. Heavy use of a substance can eventually lead to an addiction, which is all the more reason to find healthier ways to cope.
- Identify the stressors in your life that may be facilitating your need for the substance. Ask: What kinds of situations make me want to use this substance? Some common examples I have heard in the past are a. I want to smoke whenever I feel defeated b. I want to get high when I’m bored c. I want to drink when I have arguments with my partner d. I want to eat when I worry about my children e. I browse Instagram when I am unhappy with my life. Identifying your stressors may help you understand what triggers you to use your substance of choice. Your stressors may also be all-encompassing emotional experiences, the most common of which are fear/worry, sadness/depression, and anger. Or they may be contributed by unhealthy situations in your life such as a dissatisfying job, an unhappy marriage, conflictual relationships, etc.
- Avoid these stressors. After identifying your stressors, a helpful first step is to avoid these stressors whenever possible. One way to do so is by taking preventative steps.
Ask: What can I do to prevent experiencing the stressor in the first place? For instance, if you want to drink when you have arguments with your partner, it may be helpful to learn healthy conflict resolution strategies so that when you do argue, it doesn’t feel like a stressful situation. If you want to smoke because your work life is stressful, you may want to carve out time for relaxation during your work day so that you are less likely to feel overwhelmed.
- Identify how else to manage those stressors without using the substance. Unfortunately, it is impossible to avoid all stressors, so it will helpful to learn healthy ways to cope when you do experience them.
Ask: If I didn’t have this substance, what would I do instead to cope? Another question you may ask is: What else has helped me in the past to cope with stressors? Here you are trying to identify healthy ways to regulate your emotions. Some examples can be talking to a friend, going for a run, taking a bath, practicing relaxation, or using a similar but less harmful substance e.g. a vape, non-alcoholic beer, healthier food items, etc. If you find that the source of your stress is an unhealthy situation such a dissatisfying job, you want to consider a job change. If you believe there a bigger concern at hand such as anxiety, depression or a trauma, you may want to consult with a therapist.
- Community Resources.
In the event the above strategies don’t work, it may be worthwhile to look into these free community resources. Although these sound like addictions centres, they are able to work with any individual struggling with substance use.
- Adult Addiction Services
- Smart Recovery
- Speak to a General Practitioner or your family doctor
Shezlina Haji, MA, has extensive experience in the area of emotional regulation, personal growth, plus many more. For more information on Shezlina and her work, click here to link to her full bio page.