Supplementing the Going There with Dr. Mike podcast presented by Consequence and Sound Mind Live, the monthly “Ask Dr. Mike” column is here to answer listeners’ questions about their mental health. This past month’s episodes focused on Substance Abuse, and with the holiday season rife with reasons to turn to unhealthy behavior, Dr. Mike is here to help demystify the reasons why we often turn to such bad habits.
The holiday season is upon us once again. For many people, this can be a wonderful time in our lives filled with holiday parties, seeing family and friends, and exchanging gifts and gratitude.
It’s also the time where we often find ourselves engaging in a range of unhealthy behaviors that are intended to be celebratory in nature. Those behaviors may range from binge eating unhealthy food to binge drinking alcohol or using other drugs such as cocaine or pot. In these instances, the goal of using substances is to help us enjoy ourselves and feel good. After all, unhealthy holiday foods usually taste great and can be fun to share with others, alcohol or marijuana can lower our inhibitions to put us in more of a festive party mood, and drugs like cocaine can make the highs feel higher.
However, for many people there is another side to the holiday season, a somewhat less festive one. Many of us see the world beaming with holiday spirit — but we simply don’t feel it. Perhaps we have been struggling with our mental health, and our emotional state does not match the joy we see in others. Sometimes we see the holidays as a time when we ponder what we don’t have and wish for more satisfying work, stronger bonds with family and friends, and fulfilling romantic relationships. While our perspective on the holiday season may be different in these cases, we still turn to unhealthy behaviors in the same way, only we use substances such as unhealthy food, alcohol, and drugs to escape our negative thoughts and feelings rather than enhance and celebrate our good mood. We turn to substances that reliably make us feel better – or nothing at all. And this soothes us when we feel badly — at least for a while.
Regardless of why we use unhealthy substances, many of us realize that these behaviors are harmful to our health and well-being. Eating unhealthy foods, drinking too much, or using drugs may worsen our mental and physical health and reduce our overall level of functioning. If we find ourselves struggling with full-blown addiction, we may find that we are at risk of losing our work, our relationships, and even our life. Yet we hold off on making any changes until the start of the new year when we make a resolution to eat healthy, get sober, or at least reduce our unhealthy behaviors.
Choosing to embrace sobriety or to reduce unhealthy substance use can be one of the most important and difficult tasks that we can undertake in our life. Our natural tendency is to put all of our energy and effort into it, but here is where our good intentions may inadvertently backfire on us. Rather than being kind to ourselves and understanding about why we used unhealthy substances in the first place, we engage in the “Big Lie” about substance use.
The “Big Lie” is when we dismiss our substance use as only “irrational,” “self-defeating,” or an ongoing act of “self-sabotage.” We focus on the harm done, chastise ourselves for succumbing to our demons and decide that we will behave differently. In these moments we can be cruel to ourselves, and ignore why we use in the first place: The benefits we derive from our using.