Life isn’t always easy—especially years into a pandemic. And when the going gets tough, we all turn to the little things that help relieve our stress. Often, little measures like a long, hot bath, a delicious dinner with friends, or a gym sweat session can do the trick.
Just as often, though, coping mechanisms can veer into unsafe territory, and we look for an escape from reality in the form of a few too many drinks, disordered eating, impulsive spending, or even harmful drugs.
We may even take a seemingly great stress reliever to an unhealthy level, like exercising so much that you get an injury.Sometimes, an inner voice whispers to stop before you go too far. Or, when staring down the aftermath—a hangover, legal trouble, a hefty credit card bill—a similar voice promises you’ll never do that again.
So why do our brains often tune those voices of reason out so often?Below, we explore why so many of us are tempted by these less-than-healthy fixes for our challenges and outline meaningful coping mechanisms that can heal the body and the brain.
Why We Escape
There are several reasons, often personal and overlapping, that we turn to destructive behaviors as a form of escape. Here are some of the most common, according to the NIH:
- Mental Health: Every day, researchers are learning more about the many ways mental illness and impulsive behaviors or addiction are linked. According to the NIH, about half of the people who experience mental illness will also experience a substance abuse disorder. There are several potential reasons for this overlap, including genetic vulnerability, environmental influences, and the desire to self-medicate when mental illness goes untreated.
- Stress: Everyone gets stressed, but not all stress is bad, notes one study published in The Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences. Sometimes, we’re able to look at our stressors, map out mechanisms for dealing with them, and emerge bolder, wiser, or stronger. Other times, though, our stressors seem too overwhelming to tackle head on. That’s when we turn to coping mechanisms—potentially harmful ones—that can add to our cycle of stress.
- Isolation: Even pre-pandemic, a survey by Cigna reported that more than half of Americans felt feelings of loneliness and isolation. Those feelings only deepened as people lost loved ones, shifted to remote work and school, and went long periods without seeing family and friends in person. Intensely focusing on something besides those feelings—watching TV with a bottle (or two) of wine, online shopping or gambling—can temporarily relieve loneliness, but can lead to larger issues over time. For example, these behaviors can create a false sense of security that the pain is gone, only creating a cycle of dependence, notes the Recovery Centers of America.
- Neurobiology: Sometimes our brain is to blame. With more serious substance abuse or extreme addictions like gambling, sex, or shopping, our brain chemistry can adjust, says a report by the Surgeon General’s Office. The number of pills or drinks needed to achieve a high keeps rising. At the same time, our brain becomes trained to associate everyday cues (like seeing the online shopping apps you use on your phone) with the temporary thrill of the act, making it more difficult to stop your brain from thinking about chasing the next high. Additionally, the part of the brain that controls our response to stress starts to, in essence, get more stressed out when it’s not getting its escape. Together, this brain response can make it difficult, depending on the intensity of your use and what you're using, you may need to consult a physician to quit in a safe and healthy way.
So how do you know if your go-to escape from reality needs a reality check? There are two key steps. First, trust your gut. If you’ve second guessed one of your behaviors or relationships with substances lately—or squashed down the little voice that piped up telling you to second guess it—then there is probably reason to explore some healthier alternatives.
If that’s the case, your second step is to have a chat with your clinician. They’ll be able to take a look at your actions from a medical perspective, offer up some personalized recommendations for finding healthier coping mechanisms, possible medications if applicable, additional resources and set you on a manageable path toward feeling your best.
Curious about some of the ways you can better manage your stressors and opt for healthy coping mechanisms?
We’ve got a few favorites:
- Channel the good stress. Some stressors are too serious, painful, or long-lasting to solve with a quick fix. But others can benefit from a perspective shift. Rather than viewing a stressor as an insurmountable problem, take some time to tackle the problem. The high of coming up with a creative solution may unlock a cascading flood of good feelings.
- Talk it out. Putting your negative feelings into words can help alleviate the stress of those feelings over time, according to research from UCLA. Look for people who can listen. It may be someone trained, like a therapist, or somewhere more anonymous, like an online support group. Be as honest and open as possible to reap the most benefit.
- Be honest with yourself when setting goals. Often, when we want to kick a bad habit for good, we set unattainable goals, like giving something up cold turkey or committing to an unrealistic workout schedule. It makes our brains feel like we’re about to accomplish something, but according to an article in Harvard Business Review, we’re only setting ourselves up for failure and disappointment. Instead of taking an all-or-nothing approach and then giving up on a goal, start small and then build from there. For example, try one month without online shopping rather than the prospect of never adding items to a virtual cart again.
- Learn from your past. Let’s say you try a sober month. You loved not being hungover on Saturday mornings, but also don’t think a totally sober lifestyle is for you. Take that information and work with it. Maybe you commit to alcohol-free Fridays and reserve your hangover-less Saturday mornings for a treat you love, like a tasty breakfast or a long hike. Over time, the possibility of more enjoyable Saturday mornings may morph into more alcohol-free nights and more productive mornings.
- Ask yourself why. Next time you’re staring down a moment where you’re craving some temporary relief, take a moment to ask yourself why you’re reaching for the credit card or that carton of ice cream. The answer might be frighteningly honest, but pausing for that moment might also help you realize this is only a temporary answer that could cause even more problems. Instead of opting for that momentary relief, see if you can take one step to solve the why.
Have questions on reassessing your relationship with a substance or behavior in your life?
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