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5 Signs You Use Drugs or Alcohol as a Coping Mechanism

4 minute read

No one who uses drugs or alcohol sets out to become addicted, but it happens. Over 14 million American adults have an alcohol use disorder according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and 31 million Americans over age 12 are using illicit drugs.

The path to addiction often starts as a way to cope with challenging life experiences or negative emotions. If you’re doing any of these five things, it’s time to take a closer look at your substance use:

1. Using Drugs or Alcohol to Unwind

American culture often depicts substance use as a way to deal with stress — winding down at the end of a long day with a glass of wine or toke — but using substances to cope with stress can quickly progress to a full-blown substance use disorder. If you’re using drugs or alcohol to cope with stress from work, school, family, or other pressures, you’re walking a slippery slope.

Stress and alcoholism and drug addiction are inextricably linked. Regular use of substances is especially risky if you have trauma, a mental health disorder, or a family history of substance abuse. You are more susceptible to developing addictive behaviors and a drug or alcohol dependence under these circumstances.

2. Always Using Substances in Social Situations

Drinking alcohol in social situations is acceptable and often encouraged in American culture — parties, sporting events, dates, even some movie theatres serve alcohol now. A true “social drinker” will have one — occasionally two — drinks in these situations. If you’re having several drinks and feeling like you need to have alcohol in social situations to feel comfortable or confident, it’s time to take a look at your substance use.

The same goes with drug abuse. Always using drugs in social situations and avoiding events or gatherings where there won’t be an opportunity to drink alcohol or use drugs is a red light that you need help.

3. Needing Drugs or Alcohol to Sleep

Sleep and addiction are often linked. The relationship is bidirectional. Alcohol and drug abuse can lead to sleep issues, but insomnia and poor sleep hygiene can also increase the risk of developing a substance use disorder.

A common symptom of alcohol use disorders is insomnia. Some people think the effects of alcohol help them sleep better. While alcohol is a depressant and may help you feel more relaxed before you sleep, it actually gives you a less quality and amount of sleep.

Some people develop a dependency on prescription drugs to sleep. Continued use of benzodiazepines can lead to a physical and psychological addiction. Furthermore, sleep issues can be an alcohol or drug withdrawal symptom. A key sign of addiction is needing a substance to function and stave off withdrawal.

4. Daydreaming About Drugs or Alcohol

If you have frequent thoughts about drug and alcohol consumption when you’re not around them, you may be using substances to cope. For example, if you’re having a stressful situation at work and you find yourself thinking about how good a drink or a hit would be to take the edge off, you’re in dangerous territory. Regularly thinking about substance use throughout your day is a sign that your relationship with alcohol and drugs is problematic.

5. Using Drugs and Alcohol to Improve Your Mood

Mental health disorders are often associated with alcohol and drug abuse. It’s estimated that around 9.2 million people who struggle with drug or alcohol abuse also have a co-occurring disorder. Common co-occurring disorders with addiction include depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and personality disorders. If you turn to drugs or alcohol to remedy a low mood or anxious thoughts, substance abuse may be your way of trying to cope with psychiatric symptoms.

Worried About Your Substance Use?

One of the most significant signs of addiction is continuing to use drugs or alcohol despite negative consequences to your health, relationships, finances, and well-being. If the thought of changing your drug use or drinking behaviors makes you anxious or doesn’t seem possible, it’s time to seek help.

Addiction treatment helps you address the reasons why you’re using drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism. You’ll explore those issues in a safe, compassionate environment with the help of behavioral health professionals. Drug and alcohol treatment also teaches you how to stop using alcohol and drugs as ways to self-medicate, and instead draw upon healthy coping skills when you’re triggered to use substances.

We can help. If you or a loved one is struggling, call us for a free, confidential consultation.


Sarah Schapmann
David Szarka
Medically Reviewed by David Szarka, MA, LCADC
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