Woman drinking alcohol to cope with stress

Are you no longer drinking grog for fun?

Alcohol abuse is a serious public health problem in northern and far northern Queensland.

For example, the number of deaths attributed to alcohol have been consistently higher in rural areas than in urban areas. In the same areas, between one and two thirds of young people report having been victims of alcohol-related physical abuse. And the rate of alcohol-related violence across some mining communities with fly-in fly-out worker camps is significantly higher than the state average.

Most people know that too much grog can affect their relationships, mental wellbeing and even their physical health. So why do they keep doing it?

 

Alcohol abuse and stress

It is normal human behaviour to want to avoid situations that makes us feel stressed. That’s because our response to stress-inducing situations is part of our evolution. When we’re confronted with stress, we’re ‘programmed’ to respond as if it were a threat to our wellbeing.

The way we react when confronted with stressful situations is known as the stress response (also known as the fight or flight response). It’s a series of physical and psychological changes in our body and mind that, while they may not feel nice, are intended to help us escape or overcome danger.

The stress response has helped our species survive danger throughout our evolution. Nowadays, we continue to face many stress-inducing situations, with one major difference: daily stress is, for most people, not a threat to survival. And yet, the actual stress response that we experience is much the same as if it were a genuine threat.

Stress can take many different forms: family and relationship difficulties; deadlines, incompetence or bullying at work; heavy traffic and inconsiderate drivers on the road; physical pain or discomfort; tiredness and sleep deprivation; and so on. Stress can be both short-term or immediate (acute) or it can be ongoing (chronic).

Our natural reaction is to develop different ways to try and handle or deal with the situation that causes the stressful feelings. These are known as coping strategies or coping mechanisms — and they can be ‘good’ or they can be ‘bad’.

 

Healthy and unhealthy coping strategies

Mental health professionals classify the ways that people deal with and manage stress in two ways.

 

Healthy coping mechanisms

These are behaviours that are likely to help reduce the stress in the long-term. Psychologists call these adaptive coping strategies. Another commonly used term is healthy coping mechanisms.

Examples include physical exercise, resting, mindfulness relaxation or meditation, reading, talking it out with friends or family, or even talking it out with a professional NQ Connect phone counsellor.

 

Unhealthy coping mechanisms

These are behaviours that are not likely to help with the stress in the long-term. In fact, the stress may very well increase as a direct or indirect consequence of the behaviour.

These are called maladaptive coping strategies. Other commonly used terms are unhealthy or destructive coping mechanisms.

Examples include drug and alcohol abuse, problem gambling, smoking addiction, so-called ‘emotional eating’, excessive or intense anger, excessive avoidant behaviour, shopping and spending beyond one’s financial means, etc.

Unhealthy coping behaviours will often provide what seems like short-term relief from a stressful situation. However, the long-term consequence is that the problem will probably remain unresolved because the underlying cause of stress has not been addressed.

 

Why do people drink alcohol to deal with their troubles?

Alcohol is one of the most widely consumed drugs in the world along with nicotine and caffeine. In Australia, grog is usually easy to obtain and is widely accepted as a normal part of social settings and celebrations.

However, alcohol is also a very common unhealthy coping mechanism. This is because alcohol can, in the short term, provide what feels like relief from worries, but can ultimately make the feelings seem worse.

Alcohol is a depressant drug that affects the way information and messages are processed in the brain. A few drinks can make us feel relaxed, lower inhibitions, and make us feel more outgoing and confident. More alcohol over time, however, can actually increase feelings of depression and anxiety. One reason for this, for instance, is that alcohol can affect chemicals in the brain like serotonin and norepinephrine, both of which help regulate mood.

Alcohol can be a problem when it is consumed to excess (i.e. abused) as a way to deal with and ‘mask’ or numb negative or stressful thoughts and feelings, rather than for social or recreational reasons, like hanging out with mates or watching the footy.

As mentioned, not only does alcohol not make the problem go away, but excessive consumption can make the underlying source of distress actually seem worse and may increase the risk of mental health problems. In addition, the many undesired effects of alcohol abuse and excessive consumption — physical effects on health, financial cost, damaged relationships, heightened anxiety after a bender, etc. — can further add to the distress.

 

Help for alcoholism and alcohol abuse

There are many reasons why people drink alcohol to excess. However, at the heart of an unhealthy (e.g. maladaptive) coping mechanism is a person’s desire to avoid dealing with a difficult situation.

It’s important to remember that not all problems result specifically from stress. People may resort to booze to try and deal with other problems, such as depression, social or general anxiety, grief and loss, chronic pain and illness, feelings of low self-esteem, and many more.

Although the natural desire to avoid stressful and unpleasant situations is a fundamental part of being alive, there are many ways of dealing with life’s stresses and difficulties which can be less harmful.

A great place to start is to talk it out with a trusted friend or family member. Simply talking about it can help someone get a new perspective about the underlying difficulties that are resulting in the behaviour. However, if that’s not an option, then consider talking it out with a professional counsellor.

NQ Connect phone and online counsellors are trained to listen and help people develop ways to cope with life’s stresses. The service provides free counselling to people in northern Queensland and is available 24/7.

 

Need help? You can find support services in northern Queensland or complete a self-administered K10 test for depression and anxiety. You can also join the online mental health forum to talk with like-minded people.