Addiction or Coping Strategy? (Part I)

Does it feel like you need something outside of yourself to feel okay? Like a drink, a cigarette, an unhealthy treat, or a joint are essential to get through the day? It’s not unusual to want to improve how you feel, especially if the fix is so simple. Everyone does it to some extent – like ‘needing’ coffee to get started in the morning, or feeling very dependent on your evening Netflix session if you’ve had a tough day.

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There’s so many ways in which we can use substances or experiences to escape from how we feel inside. Some of these are positive coping strategies – like going for a run to work stress and tension out of your body, or watching a funny video to get your mind off something that worries you.


The problem only arises when you start to over-use a particular fix, or if the fix has negative side effects. Say, if the amount of treats you have impacts your self-esteem because you start to feel you are losing control over your weight. Or if you do things you regret while you’re intoxicated. In those situations, you can end up with an emotional hangover that’s actually worse than the emotion you were using the substance/experience to fix. Like if you were having a bad day, spent the evening smoking, and then woke up the next morning feeling anxious and low without being able to say why. Then the hangover, whether emotional or physical, starts off another bad day, which requires another fix, which starts off the next bad day – and then you’re in a negative cycle that’s tough to break out of.


If this rings a bell, it’s a good idea to start taking note of your emotions, and how you handle them. Try to pay attention to what you’re feeling inside in that moment when you reach for a bottle or a cigarette. Pause for a minute to figure out what you’re trying to escape from, before you take action. Check inside your body and your mind for clues about what’s really going on. Were you thinking of something that made you feel sad, scared, or angry? Did someone say or do something that triggered hurt or worry? It can be difficult at first, but once you get in the habit of checking and identifying what’s going on, it gets easier.


And once you know what you’re trying to escape, you have the power to decide whether escaping is the best course of action. Sometimes it’s helpful to take a break and distract yourself from worries and stresses. But a lot of the time, it’s more effective to try to face the problems head on. You might identify a relationship that is consistently making you want to binge, or a particular type of situation that usually ends up with you having a drink in your hand. And you can then figure out if there’s a way to: a) resolve the problem (improve or end the relationship), or b) manage your feelings differently (being kind to yourself, or using healthy coping strategies – see below).


Once you’re making sense of, and taking action on your problems, you’ll feel less of a need to escape the emotions they trigger. Taking action means feeling more in control, less worried and scared, and less vulnerable*.

In the meantime, here are some options for positive escapes. Try not to over-rely on any one thing, but mix it up to get the benefits of a varied emotional diet J


Healthy coping strategies



Exercising – running, dancing, weightlifting…


Drawing or painting


Listening to music

Going for a walk

Hanging out with your pet

Learning a new skill – juggling, handstands, knitting…

Researching a topic that interests you

Watching your favourite series


Planning your next holiday

Meeting a friend


*If you think want to learn more about addictions, or you think you might need professional support, here are some helpful links:

Lauren Casey