A man using self-medication to deal with stress by drinking alcohol.Dealing With Stress

When encountering stress in life, we often deal with it in one of two ways: either through self-care, or self-medication. One is a healthy long term solution, the other is an unhealthy short-term band-aid. Our go-to strategies for managing stress are usually subconscious – meaning that we don’t stop and think about how to manage negative emotions, we simply react. Are you in this camp? Consider, for example, what you do after a long, stressful day at work. Do you go home and binge on ice cream? Maybe head to the bar for happy hour to have a few drinks?

Self-Medication

Such indulgence in substances is called self-medication. When you self-medicate, you suppress the feelings that are troubling you. Instead of trying to heal, you simply ignore your stress and pain. While it is common to turn to drugs and alcohol as forms of self-medication, there are many other “socially acceptable” ways to numb yourself from pain. You might go on a shopping spree, for example. Or you might overeat. Some people become workaholics as a way of self-medicating. Others use sex and relationship drama to avoid confronting other deep-seated issues in their life.

Self-CareA woman getting a massage

In stark contrast to self-medication, self-care means using healthy tools to relieve stress. Self-care involves confronting stress and frustration with activities that will make you feel better, while taking care of your body at the same time. A great example of self-care is getting a massage. Meditation is also a wonderful way to relieve stress. You might simply enjoy a walk around the lake at sundown. Self-care is about doing something nourishing that helps you feel less tired and upset.

Making a Lifestyle Change

If you find yourself self-medicating, then you ought to consider changing your actions. Make a conscious effort to manage stress in healthier ways. Here are some tips:

1. Pay attention to how you react to stress. There’s nothing wrong with having a drink with dinner, but when it turns into three or four every night, you may have crossed the line. Find healthy ways to take care of negative emotions.

2. Practice self-care every day. You must remember to take care of yourself, no matter what is going on in the world around you. Doing so is a prerequisite for helping others in your life. It’s like the safety rules of an airplane – you have to put on the oxygen mask yourself before you can help others.

3. Accept negative emotions and let yourself feel things. Pain and stress are inevitable. No one can go through life without ever feeling sadness, suffering, or anger. Instead of suppressing these negative emotions, allow yourself to work through them. Control your response, not the experiences.

Strategies for Healthy LivingPlaying basketball is a healthy way to relieve stress

It’s often difficult to make changes in our established routines. Even with all the good intentions in the world, filling the void of self-medication does not come easily. Without a distinct plan of action, you will likely fall back into old, unhealthy ways. Here are some good strategies for self-care:

  • Even if you don’t enjoy exercise, you will find that as you improve your physical well-being, your mental health improves along with it. Find a sport you can enjoy with a good friend. Take dancing lessons with your spouse. Play golf, shoot hoops, or ride a bike.
  • Take time to meditate and connect with your faith each day. Spirituality offers plenty of avenues to relieve stress. Embrace it.
  • Get enough sleep. It might sound simplistic, but a lack of sleep can be devastating – both for your physical and mental health.
  • Maintain healthy friendships. There is nothing wrong with spending time alone, but don’t forget your friends. They are tremendous resource – whether you need someone to confide in, or simply enjoy some mutual company.
  • Find a hobby. Knit, sew, fish or hike. Do something that you enjoy just for fun.
  • Spend time with your family. Go on a weekend road trip, go out for dinner, or just play a game with your kids.
  • Eat healthy. Your diet has a direct impact on how you feel. Research nutritional and tasty meals, then learn how to cook them at home.

Moving Forward

Life moves at such a fast pace, sometimes you need to stop and take a deep breath. Think about your habits, and consider your strategies for dealing with stress. Do they fall under the category of self-care, or self-medication? If you rely too much on substances to maintain happiness, consider making a change in your lifestyle. The tangible benefits of investing in yourself and connecting with others cannot be overstated.

How do you deal with stress? Do your strategies work?   

 

3 comments

  1. maiane santos Santos says:

    After a lifetime of being a first responder, I lived with it, I lived two lives, my job was a compartment, my home life was a compartment. I learned to tamp my feelings down, if my wife or kids asked about my day, I would answer as far as they needed to know, I self medicated, but after 30 years and multi bad stress relief choices I cold turkey all my means, its been good, you make your own choices, and you deal with it.

  2. Dreamsinger says:

    Great article, joseph, you nailed a lot of the issue quite well. Thanks for bringing up a rather uncomfortable topic for many of us in the ULC, because there’s a lot of people we work with (or help counsel) who fight these battles every day.

    I’ve heard that while addiction is real, people aren’t addicted to sex, drugs, and alcohol, they’re addicted to escaping reality. The more I’ve observed of others over the past few years, and even examining my own past interactions with them, the more inclined I am towards believing this argument. So the bigger question then becomes: if our addictions are used to escape reality, what are the sources of this need to do so? What is it about the real world that makes being functional so much less desirable than being dysfunctional?

    When exposed to stressors and aggression, the human body creates adrenaline; as this endorphin rushes into and through our bloodstreams, it elicits the oft-familiar “fight or flight” behavior. We either want to face our problems head-on, or we want to run away from them. The problem is that adrenaline has a rather addictive quality in itself, when the human body creates and uses enough of it over a long period of time. You literally become an adrenaline junkie, like the guy from the movie “Crank” (except without people wanting to kill you for whatever reason… usually.)

    “Great!” you may be thinking. “I can just take a few days’ vacation and chill out, get some rest, and be right as rain on Monday!”

    It doesn’t work that way. Remember, adrenaline is just as addictive as any other street or prescription drug, so like any other street or prescription drug you’re going to experience withdrawal symptoms. My sister-in-law cold-turkeyed from booze, cough medicine, and cocaine… my brother didn’t tell me much about how hard it was to watch his fiancee (at the time, this was back around 2000 or so) go through the process to get clean. With adrenaline, you’re just twitchy, on edge, maybe a bit paranoid (depending), emotionally unstable, and have trouble sleeping for a bit, but you won’t die from it… and that’s the good news.

    The bad news is that you’ll itch to go back to the very triggers that caused the addiction in the first place, even more than with booze or drugs, because of peer pressure. Social media is a huge stressor. In fact, there’s been quite a few psychological studies that discovered a higher rate of depression, narcissism, aggression, tendencies towards violence, and use/abuse of drugs and alcohol, just from using Facebook alone. Twitter, Reddit, Google+, even mainstream media news sources on the internet and cable television are prone to setting people off for imaginary reasons. Imaginary, because when you’re high on adrenaline, you’re almost as paranoid as you are during withdrawal.

    What doesn’t help any is that when people get stressed out, they eat more food to replenish the calories burned by being stressed out. Normally this isn’t a big problem, but when you’re distracted about really inane topics that are outside your control, nutrition doesn’t tend to register on the list of concerns. It’s pretty frightening what empty calories can do to an adrenaline junkie on the verge of becoming explosively violent to others.

    Some people have different stressors. But it all comes down to a simple choice: do you want to take control over your own life, or allow the world to control how badly your life becomes?

    You cannot control what other people do. You can only control how you react to them. And if it’s not within your three-foot circle, then it has no control over you unless you allow it. It’s your reality, and if you’re not in the driver’s seat of it… then dude, where’s your car?

  3. Nik says:

    Good to know to article and sometimes the stressors do get out of hand, especially when running into folks that are stupid, hateful, judgemental and thoughtless. Makes me wonder with all our so called education of K 12 public schools, you would feel that the Golden Rule should be taught and that prejudice and bigotry would have been a relic of the past. As if being kind and respectful of others and trusting and giving the benefit of the doubt as an extended courtesy, is somehow being a wuss.

    Thanks for writing a very well thought out and organized article on stressors and

    dreamsinger thanks for your insight and life experience and how the stressors unchecked and not handled well, can manifest itself in a dangerous way of paranoia and violence; that can explain a lot of what goes in our legal system and psychiatric centers; i.e. being aware of triggers and stressors and handling them in a way that cause harm to yourself or others.

    Never ran into anyone who can wrap it all up in a way of being so succinct, clear and concise.

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