7 Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms in Addiction


Addiction, including alcohol and drug addiction, is a brain disease that impacts various brain functions to do with reward, pleasure, memory, and motivation. It doesn’t just ‘happen’, instead it typically develops over a period of time. 

If you’re wondering what are the stages of addiction, they can be broadly characterised as initial use, which leads to abuse. Put simply, abuse means using the substance in a manner that is considered harmful. This is followed by the brain changing and developing tolerance, which is characterised by the initial amount of the substance no longer producing the same effects. After tolerance follows dependence, at this point, the body and brain now rely on the substance to function properly, and any attempts to stop are likely to result in withdrawal. From here, the stage is set for addiction. 

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In this article, we take a look at coping skills in the context of addiction. We’ll explore why some people don’t have healthy coping skills, look at both healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms, and understand why developing healthy coping skills is vital when it comes to beating addiction. 

What Are Coping Skills?

Coping skills refer to the tools we have available to us to help us navigate through life’s challenges. When it comes to minor inconveniences, like getting a parking ticket or dealing with a rude customer, and life’s bigger stresses, like getting fired or losing a loved one, we all rely on the coping skills we have in our toolbox to deal with stressful situations. 

Having an arsenal of well-developed coping skills at your disposal is a huge advantage in life. They can help you not only deal with and better manage negative events but do so while maintaining a positive self-image. 

We often learn coping skills from parents and care providers, as young infants. We watch how the adults in charge react during negative life events and often unconsciously adopt similar strategies. If the caregivers in your life modelled healthy coping mechanisms, such as exercise, boundary setting, and breathwork, you’ll likely adopt similar coping mechanisms. However, in many cases, this isn’t what is modelled. Instead, you might have witnessed avoidance, substance abuse, or impulsive spending. 

But the good news is, it’s never too late to update your coping skills and learn how to manage stress in a healthier, more efficient manner. 

Addiction, Co-Occurring Disorders, and Stress

Without adequate skills to navigate life’s stressors, many people unwittingly turn to alcohol or substance abuse. What might start as a quick drink to take the edge off of a stressful day can, in the right circumstances, spiral into a fully-fledged addiction that is difficult to break free of. 

When someone is dealing with both an addiction, such as alcohol or substance addiction, and suffering from a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety, it is called a dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorder. 

This connection between stress, mental health conditions, and addiction is well documented across the literature. There are many reasons for this connection. On the one hand, coping with a mental health condition can leave a person feeling drained and exhausted, and self-medicating with substances can feel like a way to relax or numb those effects. On the other hand, people who engage in alcohol and substance abuse are putting themselves at greater risk of developing a mental health condition. 

To complicate things further, co-occurring disorders also affect the severity of one another. When a mental health condition remains untreated, the person is more likely to continue self-medicating and the addiction is therefore likely to worsen too. Likewise, when alcohol or drug abuse intensifies, the mental health condition usually gets worse too. 

Unfortunately, this is more common than you might think. For example, around 50% of people suffering from severe mental illness also have a substance abuse disorder. This cycle is hard to break, as both issues need to be treated in order for things to improve. Fortunately, help is available, and equipped with the right support, treatment, and network, people can beat a co-occuring disorder. 

How Do People Cope With Addiction?

In many cases, people who end up dealing with an addiction do not have the right coping skills in place to tolerate life’s inevitable stressors. In many cases, they have turned to their addiction as a coping mechanism, but as you’ll find out by reading the rest of this article, that is not an effective coping mechanism and in most cases usually ends up making life more difficult. 

Two Main Types Of Coping Mechanisms

Coping mechanisms can be broadly divided into two camps: unhealthy and healthy. The main difference is that while unhealthy coping mechanisms might help in the short term, they usually make the person feel worse over the long term. In comparison, healthy coping mechanisms might initially feel more difficult or challenging, but over the long term, they improve outcomes. 

Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

In this section, we’ll look at 7 unhealthy coping mechanisms that often feature in addiction.

Avoidance 

Avoidance as a coping mechanism makes sense for people who don’t have the right coping tools in place. They are simply unable to ‘cope’, so they resort to avoidance. You might have heard of this as burying your head in the sand. It looks like noticing there are stressful events going on in your life, and then choosing to ignore them. 

This could mean finding a lump on your body, but refusing to book a doctor’s appointment. Or it could mean hearing about company layoffs but choosing not to apply for new jobs. In addition, it could mean noticing some of the negative consequences of your addiction (perhaps you don’t have money to pay for bills or you notice your anxiety has flared up), but you simply carry on engaging with the addiction anyway. While at the moment avoidance feels like the easier option (you’re simply pretending it doesn’t exist), in the long run, it can lead to more stress and anxiety. 

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Sleeping too much 

Another unhealthy coping mechanism is sleeping too much. Of course, we all need to sleep, and getting enough sleep is critical for our health, happiness, and basic functioning. But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. When people are choosing to sleep for long periods of time, instead of confronting troubling issues, it can become a problem. This might look like laying in and even possibly missing important events or appointments because you are sleeping. 

Impulsive spending 

Some people call it retail therapy, but the cute nickname shouldn’t detract from the fact that spending money as a way to distract yourself from your problems is unhealthy. It works in the short term because it provides a temporary high (it can even become an addiction for some people). However, this form of self-medication can quickly spiral out of hand and leave you battling feelings of shame and guilt, not to mention the financial implications. 

Socialising with triggering people 

We all know how important it is to have the support of good friends and family around us. However, hanging out with the right people is critical. If you fall in with a crowd that only ever wants to meet up at the pub, or who frequently engages with substance abuse, you are more likely to be tempted to join in. Watching other people cope with stress by numbing their feelings through alcohol and drugs might make it start to seem like a normal and reasonable thing to do. 

Working too hard 

Having a meaningful job can be a big part of your life, but like with sleep, there can be too much of a good thing. Overworking – when you work more than your contracted hours or take on increasing responsibilities – while you continue to neglect problems in your personal life is a poor coping strategy. While it might initially distract, ultimately it will end up adding more stress to your life and could result in worsening mental health or substance abuse problems.

unhealthy coping mechanisms

Ignoring mental health 

Mental health and addiction are closely linked. So if you start to notice signs that your mental health is suffering, it’s always best to act quickly. Ignoring mental health issues can quickly worsen or even trigger an addiction. 

Over or under eating

As is the case with sleep and work, there is a sweet spot when it comes to food. Ideally you should eat enough food so that your body has adequate nutrition to fuel you throughout the day and keep its functions and systems running. Unfortunately, many people either under or over eat in response to stress. Both of these are negative and can end up worsening your problems  both in the short and long term. 

Healthy Coping Mechanisms

The good news is, there are plenty of healthy coping mechanisms to choose from which can help you overcome painful emotions and difficult events without making your problem worse. 

Healthy coping mechanisms can be broken down into two categories. The first is a problem-focused approach, which aims to address the actual issue and improve matters in a tangible manner. This is useful in scenarios where such change is possible, such as losing a job (you can find a new one) or improving a health problem (you can try a new treatment). The second category is emotion-focused, and these are useful when addressing the distress that is caused by any challenge, along with problems that don’t have a logical “fix”, such as the loss of a loved one. 

Seek support

In times of trouble, seeking support from your loved ones is a sensible step to take. Instead of internalising the stress or hiding away, choose to speak with a friend or family member instead. Not only might they have a different perspective you find useful, but the simple act of opening up will foster connection. 

Take care of your basic needs 

Ensuring you get enough quality sleep, eat a well-balanced diet full of all the nutrients your body needs, and take enough exercise can go a long way in helping you to cope with all manner of challenges. 

Challenge unhelpful perspectives

If you feel yourself sliding into a negative mindset, challenge yourself. Remind yourself that problems are not insurmountable and look beyond your present circumstances to see how things might improve. 

Be proactive 

Taking action is powerful and can help you to overcome a whole host of problems, from financial worries to relationship problems. Instead of pretending your problems don’t exist, spend a bit of time working out the best course of action and breaking it down into tiny, achievable steps you can take daily. 

Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques

Another type of healthy coping mechanism, mindfulness, and relaxation techniques can help you to destress and view your problems from a calmer, more grounded outlook. Here are a few ideas you could try: 

  1. Body scan: This involves a few minutes of deep breathing, followed by scanning each section of your body and mentally releasing any physical tension you discover. This boosts the mind-body connection and can help you to feel calmer. 
  2. Mindfulness meditation: In this practice you focus on your breathing and repeatedly bring your attention back to the present moment whenever your mind drifts to the past or future (which it inevitably will do). 
  3. Yoga: This ancient practice uses both breath and physical movement to build a sense of mental clarity which helps banish a scattered, anxious mind. 
  4. Mantras: In this practice, simply find an uplifting word or short sentence that resonates with you and repeat it silently or out loud while you focus on deep breathing. 

If these ideas are new to you and you don’t know where to start, here are plenty of guided options available online on platforms like YouTube, as well as dedicated apps.

How We Help You Develop Healthy Coping Skills

At Smarmore Castle, developing healthy coping skills forms an integral part of our treatment plan for all addictions. Simply removing the addiction is not enough, you need to develop alternative ways to cope so that you are not tempted to return to the addiction in the face of life’s inevitable stressors. 

Through one-to-one therapy, group sessions, and access to a range of holistic complementary therapies you will learn how to refine the coping skills you have and introduce some new ones to your toolkit. 

We have specific skill sessions too, some of which may be particularly useful for developing certain skills. For example, our sleep hygiene session is perfect for people who struggle to get the recommended amount of sleep and our mindfulness meditation allows you to see for yourself just how transformative a practice it can be. 

How Rehab Can Train You For Healthy Coping

If you are currently struggling with addiction and would like to find some healthier coping mechanisms, rehab can be a transformational experience. At Smarmore Castle, the focus isn’t just on beating the addiction. We are also committed to equipping you with the life tools and skills you need to stay healthy and happy once you leave rehab and return to your normal everyday life. 

If you’re currently struggling with addiction and unhealthy coping mechanisms, call our friendly team for a chat about the next steps you can take: 041 214 5111

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