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You’ve been there before: you have a long, stressful day at work, and you can’t wait until you get home to kick off your shoes and have a drink. It is a way to unwind from the cares of the day. There is nothing wrong with that, right? Or perhaps your family is very intense, you love them, but man the only way to survive a family dinner or backyard BBQ is with a cold one in your hands. After all, that is what keeps you from telling Aunt Sally what you really think or from getting into a political debate with Grandpa Joe. There is nothing inherently wrong with either of these scenarios. The problem begins when turning to alcohol to “unwind” or to “tolerate others” starts to become your go-to, your default mode of dealing with stress. This is the biggest pitfall of using alcohol to deal with stress:

It makes you LESS able to handle stress

I’m using alcohol here as the example because it is the most common, but any way you choose to self-medicate, whether its alcohol, drugs, food, gambling, even your prescriptions, can apply when you become dependent on it to cope with stress.

Self-medicating, with alcohol or otherwise, helps you feel calmer, can slow you down, and help you unwind. The problem here is that the alcohol is doing all the work and not you. It is addictive (among other reasons) because it does a good job, and lets face it, it helps you unwind a lot quicker than most other methods. So when you are tired and stressed you are more likely to pick the easy way to unwind. Every time you choose to cope with stress by drinking you are missing out on an opportunity to practice dealing with the stress on your own.  So why do we need to practice “dealing with the stress on our own?” Let’s use an analogy: Say you ride your bike to work every day. You’re fit and you can climb that hill with no problem. You get an electric bike for Christmas and now you don’t have to pedal to work anymore. One day your engine breaks down, and you have to pedal the rest of the way, but this time that hill has you beat. You are red faced and huffing and puffing by the time you get to the top. What happened? You fell out of practice. You let the engine do all the work for you, and when you didn’t have its help, something you could handle before became a lot harder to deal with.

Things You Could Handle Before Become Harder to Deal With

That’s the problem with relying on alcohol, there are many times when we can’t or shouldn’t drink, but we still have to deal with an upsetting phone call from family, or a stressful project at work, etc… Perhaps before you only had a drink to unwind after a big project deadline, but now, just a disagreement with a boss or coworker can trigger the desire to unwind when you get home. Perhaps before you only had a drink at a big family event with people you knew would push your buttons, but now a phone call or text is all it takes to stress you out and trigger the desire to cope with your go to form of self medication. This creates a feeling that things are getting more stressful. Like the bike, you fell out of practice in dealing with these day to day challenges and now they have you beat.

Nurture Other Ways to Deal With Stress

So what can you do? The key here is to stay aware and make sure that using alcohol isn’t your only way (or your most common way) to deal with stress. Learning healthier ways to cope with stress in treatment can help. Some examples are maintaining a regular exercise routine, reading or journaling, making time for hobbies and pleasant activities, and practicing relaxation strategies such as deep breathing or meditation. In addition to those things you can do on your own, one of the best ways to cope with stress is actually to interact socially with people that support you. Call your friend, go for a walk with your partner, have a cup of tea with someone. It may actually take more time but socializing in a healthy way is the best cure for a stressful day.