How to Stop Using Alcohol as a Coping Mechanism

People use alcohol as a coping mechanism for a variety of complex reasons. Alcohol use disorder is a biopsychosocial condition, which means it’s influenced by biology, psychology, and socio-environmental factors While examining the drivers of excessive alcohol use can be an incredibly uncomfortable or even painful experience, it can also open the door to healing. 

Part of learning how to stop using alcohol as a crutch includes exploring deep-rooted emotions and traumas. It also involves understanding why using alcohol to cope isn’t healthy and knowing what type of healthy coping mechanism can be used in its place. These actions can lead you to achieve a healthy relationship with alcohol, no matter your habits today or your goals for tomorrow. 

Why People Use Alcohol as a Coping Mechanism

Many people who use alcohol to cope are seeking a sense of escape and relief, or permission to relax and unwind. At face value, this activity seems benign. However, drinking alcohol as a coping strategy works… until it doesn’t. It numbs feelings, such as anxiety, depression, or shame, without addressing them. Alcohol can also intensify negative feelings and make co-occuring conditions like depression worse. Even if we recognize this, it’s easy to revert to what we know will temporarily heal the pain or soothe the negative emotion that may be overwhelming us. 

In addition to the individual trauma each of us carries, we are all experiencing the collective trauma of the time we live in, which can make it hard to find a healthy coping mechanism that works for us. We aren’t trained to inherently know what the best solution is. Finding a way to feel better as soon as possible is the road most often taken, and this usually involves alcohol. 

It’s important to give yourself the grace to realize that you’re learning as you go. The habit of winding down from a long week with a glass of wine or binge drinking on the weekend as a way to block out the stresses of the world may seem like common ways people escape. However, a better approach is tackling stressors head-on and finding a healthy way to cope that permanently adds value and fulfillment to our life. There is no shame in having used alcohol to cope. It’s important to remember that, and know that you have better options.

Why Using Alcohol to Cope Isn’t Healthy

Although it’s not uncommon to use alcohol to cope, it isn’t a healthy coping strategy. Coping with alcohol can increase anxiety symptoms due to the constant pursuit of relaxation felt when buzzed. It causes a disconnection between your mind, body, and spirit, which may leave you feeling more in pain than before.  

When your daily stress level increases, the amount of alcohol consumption needed to relax or mask feelings often increases, too. Drinking alcohol may feel like an effective coping strategy, but it can eventually add another layer of stress to your life and make you always feel less than satisfied. It can also negatively affect your productivity, interpersonal relationships, sense of self-worth, physical health, and beyond. 

Changing your drinking habits is very much attainable, though. It starts with getting to the root of drinking and finding alternative coping mechanisms that don’t have alcohol at their core. 

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Getting to the Root of Alcohol as a Coping Mechanism 

Coping with alcohol provides a masked layer between your present reality and the deep-rooted drivers causing you to drink. Getting to the root of your drinking motives will help you gain a deeper understanding of your thoughts and behaviors and help you live a healthier life. 

First, ask yourself:What are the main stressors in my life?’ ‘Are my feelings guided by past traumatic experiences, present stressors, or anxiety about future thoughts?’ It may be a combination of all three. 

Uncovering Past Trauma 

Excessive alcohol use is a common response to trauma. While our trauma doesn’t define us, it can influence our relationship with alcohol. Seeking therapy can help you uncover and heal from past trauma that may be subconsciously guiding your habits today. With time and support, reflecting on harmful events and starting the healing process can give you the sense of peace you’re seeking when coping with alcohol.

Identifying Present Stressors

Additionally, day-to-day stressors can start to pile up and feel so overwhelming that we seek immediate relief. In these moments, practicing mindfulness brings your attention to the present moment and prevents your thoughts from spinning out of control in a stressful situation. 

Mindfulness can be achieved by simply closing your eyes and taking a few grounding breaths to bring you back to the moment. It can also involve taking a break to walk around the block or listen to relaxing music. Our thoughts are temporary. The more we take control over them and bring the mind to the here and now is powerful.

"If you feel: restless, agitated try this: do a physical activity, journal your thoughts. Unmotivated, uninspired: try: tidy your space, revisit a favorite hobby. Tired, drained: try: drink water, take a screen break. Lonely, isolated: try: call a loved one, make a gratitude list. Proud, accomplished: try: share with a friend, commemorate with a special activity

Addressing Future Anxiety

Anxiety about the future is common for many due to the nature of uncertainty regarding our health, relationships, and work matters. These anxious thoughts can influence our drinking habits. When thoughts about the future take hold,  journaling can help identify which feelings are causing stress and when they most frequently occur.

Journaling is a productive way to practice self care in recovery and allows you to get to the root of these feelings to find a healthy path forward instead of using alcohol as an escape. When practicing self-reflection, consider these types of questions:

  • Are your current feelings emotional leftovers from unhealed trauma? 
  • Are there areas of your past that have gone undiscovered that are taking up space? 
  • What is it that’s guiding the voice in your head that tells you that you aren’t allowed to take a break?
  • Are your feelings derived from new experiences? 
  • Do you have doubts about your capabilities to learn as you go?

Some of these questions may resonate more than others at different stages of your journey. As you look inward, you’ll begin to uncover areas that you may not have consciously realized were causing you stress or turmoil, and in turn impacting your drinking. Diving into the unknown can feel uncomfortable at first but can lead you to clarity and a truer sense of self. 

Recognizing That You Are Already Enough, And Don’t Need Alcohol 

Part of discovering how to stop using alcohol as a coping mechanism involves filtering out the “shoulds” of life generated by society, our upbringing, and our current inner circle. For example, when we see curated social media timelines of people who seemingly have their whole life together, we feel we should approach life in the same way. Trying to reach this level of perceived fulfillment can be a catalyst of using alcohol as an unhealthy coping mechanism. 

Think about the messages that have led you to believe things can only be one specific way in order for you to feel happy and successful. Famed researcher Brené Brown addresses this type of reality check as practicing critical awareness. While you can’t avoid the barrage of media messages, she says you can cultivate resiliency by not comparing your everyday life with manufactured images. She recommends posing questions to yourself like: Does what I’m seeing convey real life or fantasy? Do these images reflect wholehearted living or turn the valuable people and things in my life into objects?

person in field

You can apply this same critical awareness to the role alcohol plays in your life. Ask yourself: Who benefits from alcohol intake? What other factors lead you to use alcohol as your main way to relax? These factors may stem from your family history or long-held insecurities that fuel finding the immediate relief alcohol consumption can bring. 

The more you are aware of and appreciate your feelings, the more you can learn to trust yourself to handle experiences with integrity and compassion. What works for you may not work for another. Everyone is free to walk their own path.

Finding Positive Coping Mechanisms

Learning how to stop using alcohol as a coping mechanism can be challenging, and you don’t have to do it alone. At Monument, we believe that support to build positive coping mechanisms should be accessible and personalized. With treatment options including personalized therapy, medication to stop drinking, and group support, we provide you with the support you need at the time you need it. 

Therapy is a valuable tool that gives you the space to talk through the emotions and stresses that may cause you to use alcohol to cope. You can work with a specialized therapist to discuss your past and current habits, and identify new tools and routines that support your unique set of goals. Additionally, support groups give you an avenue to engage with others who are confronting similar questions and challenges. You can choose to listen, share, and learn in any capacity you wish and on your own schedule.

As you begin implementing healthier coping skills, consider what your perfect day would look like. What would you do? How would you feel? Who would you be with? Find people, places, and experiences that honor these feelings and allow you to lead a life that aspires to that ideal. 

Creating Your Path to a More Fulfilling Life

Every step you take in the interest of your own self-care is one step closer to achieving your ideal self.  Whatever your path looks like, it’s valid. Some may decide to abstain from using alcohol altogether. Others may explore how to moderate drinking to find the balance they’re looking for in building a healthier relationship with alcohol. 

It’s a non-linear journey filled with ups and downs, and we’re in it together. At Monument, we’re here to help you identify and adopt the healthy coping mechanisms that work best for you and allow you to see how you can get more out of life by drinking less.

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Sources:

  1. Spirituality Practice. “Practicing Critical Awareness, https://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/practices/practices/view/27643/practicing-critical-awareness.” Accessed April. 3, 2021.
Disclaimer: Our articles and resources do not constitute clinical or licensed therapy or other health care services. If you need counseling or therapy services please contact a licensed provider. If this is a medical emergency, call 911.

About the Author

Sabrina SpotornoSabrina Spotorno, LCSW is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with an affinity for working with children, adolescents, individuals, and families. She is a therapist on the Monument platform, and is trained in several modalities, including Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Narrative Therapy. She’s passionate about empowering her clients to recognize their strengths amidst their life transitions to optimize their sense of efficacy and alignment of their actions with their beliefs and dreams.