Everyone faces stress on some level every day, and everyone develops individual techniques and coping mechanisms for handling different kinds of stress. Some stress is moderate yet persistent over time, while other forms of stress are more acute and traumatic. All types of stress share one common denominator, however: they can all easily lead a person into substance abuse if the person does not develop healthy stress relief techniques and coping strategies.
April is Alcohol Awareness Month, making it a great time for everyone to reflect on how he or she uses alcohol, what role alcohol plays in typical stress-relief routines, and whether he or she may need treatment for alcohol abuse.
How Stress And Alcohol Abuse Interact
Stress causes a number of problems within the human mind and body. Acute stress can trigger a “fight or flight” response and a surge of adrenaline, exciting heart rate and pressuring the individual to take action. Other types of stress build more gradually and wear down motivation, enthusiasm, and may lead to diminished immune system functioning and poorer overall health.
Chronic stress and acute stress affect an individual in different ways, but both can interact with alcohol to dangerous levels. While stress forces the blood to rush to the muscles to prepare for action, alcohol acts on the central nervous system as a depressant, effectively counteracting the physiological responses to stress. Some people experience this as relief from the symptoms of stress but do not realize they are only exacerbating the problem and reducing their overall ability to handle stress by using alcohol as a crutch.
Dangers Of High-Functioning Alcoholism
Some people fall into cycles of high-functioning alcoholism in response to stress. Alcoholism does not mean spending every waking minute drunk and spending every available cent on more alcohol; some people maintain the appearance of normal, well-adjusted and even successful individuals while quietly nursing significant substance abuse disorders. A high-functioning alcoholic is someone who is able to keep a job and maintain a relatively normal personal life, but uses alcohol on a consistent basis. This is not a tenable lifestyle as alcoholism is a very aggressive form of addiction. Prolonged stress and gradually increasing alcohol tolerance will invariably lead an individual struggling with high-functioning alcoholism to deteriorate into full-blown alcoholism before too long.
Social Attitudes Toward Alcohol
Americans are generally quite relaxed when it comes to their perceptions of alcohol. Drinking has a level of social acceptability in America that some people embrace without realizing the real dangers of alcohol abuse. Binge drinking is relatively common among younger age groups, especially the late teens and early twenties.
However, it is common for people of all ages to fall into cycles of high-functioning alcoholism, sometimes for years without realizing it. Other people in their lives may not notice a problem, either. For example, an executive in a high-stress job comes home and mixes a drink after work every day. This individual may believe that one drink after work does not constitute a problem, and he or she may be right. However, the problem lies in the link between his or her stress and the drink; when drinking becomes the automatic response to stress of any kind, there is a problem worth addressing.
Unfortunately, the social attitudes toward alcohol in the U.S. could inadvertently lead to a high-functioning alcoholic deteriorating into full-blown alcoholism while the other people in his or her life are none the wiser; they may not realize a problem exists until something very serious happens, such as a hospitalization for alcohol poisoning or the loss of a job due to alcohol abuse.
Learning New Stress Relief Techniques
Using alcohol in response to stress is a very dangerous habit that can easily lead to alcoholism. When a person enters rehab for alcohol abuse, he or she will likely spend a great deal of time learning new coping strategies for managing stress and avoiding the temptation to drink. Alcohol causes intense withdrawal symptoms that can be life threatening in some situations, so anyone looking to recover from alcoholism must prepare for a long and difficult journey. Detox and “getting clean” are only the first steps; counseling, group work, and behavioral therapy help lay the foundation for a sober lifestyle after rehab.
Modern rehabs use various techniques to teach better stress management, including holistic treatments like massage and acupuncture, encouraging exploration of new hobbies, and finding stress relief in creative outlets.
Cope In A Healthier Way
Everyone deals with stress differently, but treating stress-related symptoms with alcohol is incredibly dangerous. When a person notices a link between his or her alcohol use and stress levels it can be very difficult for him or her to admit the problem. While it is possible to curb an alcohol abuse pattern before it requires professional treatment it is essential to acknowledge when an alcohol problem demands professional substance abuse treatment.
Learning new stress management techniques is a personal journey. Some individuals benefit from holistic exercise like yoga and tai chi while others enjoy experimenting with artwork and music. Rehab often exposes patients to new stress relief techniques and healthy activities they can apply to their individual lives after rehab. Discovering a new outlet for creativity or a new way to process stress is a valuable lesson for anyone, but anyone using alcohol to cope with stress needs individualized care that addresses his or her personal relationships with stress and alcohol.