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Self-Care Does Not Mean Self-Medication: The Wrong Coping Strategies for Stress at Work Can Lead To Addiction

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Demanding jobs are the norm these days. They can be satisfying but are often highly stressful too. 

Anyone involved with the public, such as police, health or social workers or teachers, might agree. 

Stress at work can lead to addiction because we sometimes learn to unwind from stress in inappropriate ways. 

Coping With Stress

It’s been a tough shift, like many others. You’ve dealt with people’s blood, sweat and tears all day, and worse besides. There’s been aggro and despair, fear and sadness and relentless time pressure. Now you really need to unwind before it all starts again tomorrow, but how?  Here are three possible options you might be considering: 

  • Have a few pints on the way home because the football will be on TV and you can have a bet too. 
  • Go home, turn on the TV, ignore the wife or husband, and drown the pain with a bottle of something strong. 
  • Walk home to get some gentle exercise, talk over your day (and theirs) with your significant other, enjoy a meal together and have an early night. If you wake feeling severely anxious, seek professional help. 

To some, the first option may be the obvious one because it will most probably give fast relief, but it can be dangerous too because habits can be easily formed and later become compulsions. The second option is not good either – apart from treating your partner badly, you are not helping yourself by isolating and not talking.  Habitual heavy drinking of this kind will almost certainly lead to severe physical and mental problems before long. For long-term peace of mind, your best option is certainly the third. 

Self-Care Not Self-Medication

Many people in stressful jobs, have to make such choices on a regular basis. Stress can come from exposure to traumatic events, extreme anxiety or an overwhelming workload. For some people, this can result in undiagnosed PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Each person reacts to and handles stress differently. Exactly how we respond is vital for our wellbeing, but habitual self-medication particularly with alcohol, is not going to be the answer. 

Proper Self-Care Is Essential

Self-care is essential and coping strategies are needed, but we have to get them right. Not everyone appreciates that some strategies are healthy and some are downright self-defeating. Ignoring, avoiding or burying the emotional fallout from work can mean future trouble. On the other hand, developing healthy strategies for coping with stress can be highly successful in restoring emotional equilibrium. Here are a few ideas: 

  • Exercise – regular exercise makes you feel good, improves metabolism and sends feel-good chemicals to your brain.  
  • Sleep – plan to have eight hours of sleep per night. Don’t sit up late and make sure your sleeping arrangements are adequate. Just having a darkened room, ventilated and free from outside noise can make a huge difference to sleep patterns. 
  • Diet – eat at regular times and don’t overeat. Make sure not to have a lot of junk food. Foods with too much sugar, starch and fat can affect your mood and hinder sleep.  
  • Communicate – there is a huge benefit in simple interaction with others where you can talk and share thoughts, worries and laughter too. Isolation has the opposite effect and can lead to anxiety and depression. 
  • Outside interests – doing something completely different from your work, that you enjoy, can take your mind off worries and give you a real boost. 
  • Meditation – the benefits of a daily meditation routine or indeed daily prayers, are well known and entirely valid. Meditation needs to be planned and to become a routine before the benefits are felt. Ten minutes before breakfast can be really helpful if done daily. 
  • Counselling – do not be afraid to see a counsellor on a regular basis. A lot of mentally healthy people do so as a part of self-care. You don’t seed to wait until you perceive a problem before getting counselling.

At Smarmore Castle, we see many people who have interpreted self-care as self-medication, via alcohol, tranquillisers or gambling. Such coping behaviours might help briefly, but relief often turns into escape and then dependence – thus the cycle of addiction begins. 

Inappropriate Responses to Stress Can Lead To Addiction

An occasional habit, such as visiting the pub or having a bet can provide some short-term release from acute stress. The danger lies in the way occasional behaviour like that slowly morphs into regular habits, where the number of visits expands and the substances used increase until it all becomes an obsession and a dependence. Suddenly a coping strategy has become a full-blown addiction. 

At Smarmore we offer advanced addiction treatment

Warning Signs of Maladaptive Responses

Stress is a major underlying cause of addiction. When self-care doesn’t succeed in keeping a healthy balance, warning signs emerge. Look out for the following: 

  • Lower productivity  
  • Visiting the pub or the betting shop or other addictive behaviour during the day (or outside work hours) 
  • Decreased reliability 
  • Neglect of appearance or self-care 
  • Mood swings and irritability 
  • Increased anxiety and signs of depression  
  • Increased sensitivity to criticism 
  • Regular or increasing sick days and tardiness 
  • Increase in easy-to-avoid mistakes or involvement in accidents. 

A Response Is Needed

When these signs appear, swift action must be taken. Here are some steps to take. Whether you are worried about yourself or a colleague, the steps are the same: 

  • Recognise the severity of the problem. When someone is still functioning though clearly struggling, it can be easier sometimes to ignore the problem or even to make excuses. Face the fact that things are likely to get worse until positive action is taken. 
  • Accept that the situation cannot continue but understand that support is available in return for honesty and cooperation, so ask for help. 
  • Place responsibility for change with the person affected. There must be no covering up. Doing so will simply enable the addictive behaviour to continue. 
  • Understand that addiction is a disease but one that responds to treatment. There are various options available – counselling, self-help organisations such as AA and GA, and residential rehab are the main ones. Discuss these openly and decide what’s best. 
  • Expect support and encouragement and maintain communication throughout the recovery process. 

Connectivity is Vital 

Healthcare professionals are becoming increasingly aware that addiction responds best to human connectivity. Isolation, loneliness and despair are usually the results of prolonged addiction, but often are part of the cause too. Communication and interaction through new activities and interests together with ongoing support (such as AA provides) are considered to be the best way of achieving prolonged and happy sobriety. 

Family Concerns 

For family and friends, there may be confusion or even panic about how best to respond when someone gets into this sort of problem. The first rule is: do not ignore it – these sorts of situations don’t go away, they tend to get worse. Secondly, ask for help. Do not be put off by fear, shame or stigma. Someone’s life may be at stake. There are many sources of confidential help available such as doctors and self-help twelve-step organisations. At Smarmore Castle we are always available for a chat in complete confidence on the best way forward. Our helpline is open 24/7 

Many people nowadays become addicted to a dual diagnosis consisting of addiction plus PTSD, Or extreme anxiety and depression. Our professional staff are able to advise on the best approach for treating such conditions, which would normally be best addressed together, via a residential programme. 

Get in touch today

To find out how we can help you, please telephone Smarmore Castle on our 24-Hour Helpline: 041 214 5111 or click here to arrange a free addiction assessment. You're almost there.
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Last updated & clinically assessed 23 August, 2022