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.
By not considering the why, we attempt to get rid of the unhealthy behavior while the basic needs that drove us to substance use remain as powerful as ever. We still want to feel good during the holidays and other times. We want to feel social and celebratory. We still want to soothe ourselves when we feel badly. Ideally, we’d be able to stop unhealthy behaviors by just deciding that we will, but often what happens is that despite our best intentions, when our needs are not being met otherwise, we find ourselves reverting back to the same unhealthy behaviors to meet those same needs.
So what can we do?
1. We start the process of reducing unhealthy behaviors by acknowledging what we gain from them. So, for example, if we feel like we drink too much alcohol, let’s start off by identifying what we gain from this behavior. Does it increase our positive mood? Does it help us numb out? Does it reduce anxiety? Does drinking alcohol allow us to “fit in” socially? Whatever the reasons, we need to be honest with ourselves and acknowledge those benefits.
2. Then we can identify the harm that the unhealthy behavior causes. For example, if we engage in binge drinking, we may ask ourselves if we feel hung over the next morning. Do we embarrass ourselves in front of friends and family? Have we ever found ourselves in unsafe situations such as risky sexual behavior or getting into fights? Do we miss social or professional commitments because of drinking?
3. Then we can begin to determine the balance. How many drinks do we need at a given time to get the benefits of drinking while minimizing the harmful downside? As an example, some people notice they feel the positive effects up until around two or three drinks, but by the fourth drink, they start to feel more of the negative impact. Try to find that balanced number of drinks. For people who struggle with substance dependence, abstinence may be the best option.
4. When we identify what we are gaining from unhealthy behavior such as alcohol, we can then start to examine other ways that we can attain the same goals without using the unhealthy substance. As an example, if we feel anxious in social situations and alcohol reduces that anxiety, we can try alternative coping strategies to achieve anxiety reduction such as meditation. If we find that we have particularly fun times when we are drinking with friends, are there other activities in which we do not have to drink in order to feel that strong sense of connection and enjoyment?
Anyone who is trying to become sober or at least reduce unhealthy substance use deserves to be treated by everyone – including themselves – with kindness, understanding, and support. So during this holiday season, as we consider the possibility of improving our physical and mental health by reducing unhealthy behaviors, let’s start by being empathic to ourselves and our needs, and not engage in the “Big Lie” about substance use. We must not tell ourselves that we use substances for no reason, or that our using is simply irrational. We can have an ongoing conversation with ourselves that understands the complexity of substance use in our lives so that we can ultimately reduce our substance so we can be healthy and get our needs met.