Why Do People Use Drugs and/or Alcohol?

There is a plethora of biological, psychological, social, and environmental factors of why people choose to use drugs and alcohol:

  • I work too hard, and need some sort of relief.
  • It takes away all my worries.
  • It allows me to escape.
  • It is a solution for my anxiety, depression, and so forth.
  • It gives me energy.
  • It allows me to talk to the opposite sex.
  • It gives me the ability to focus.
  • I’m from a family of heavy drinkers.
  • It’s part of my culture.
  • Everyone does it from my neighbourhood.
  • I cannot get a good nights sleep without a buzz.
  • I deserve it.

Underlining the motivation for using drugs and/or drinking is the opening of a conversation on the pros and cons of substance use and if there is a presence of a conflict with substance use/abuse. By no means is knowing the why(s) of use the solution for a substance dependence, but it is a great start to make significant changes in your use whether you want to abstain from alcohol and/or drugs, or to try to curb your use.

In my professional experience, the reasons individuals use licit and illicit substances falls under three general categories for utilizing alcohol and/or drugs. Firstly, individuals use to obtain a feeling. Secondly, people use to remove a feeling (usually a negative one). Lastly, similar to the removal of a feeling, they simple use drugs and alcohol heavily to escape.

To Achieve/Create a Feeling

People want to feel good and when they experience negative emotions, such as, shame, sadness or guilt they want these uncomfortable feelings to go away. Cocaine, for example, creates a feeling of euphoria, self-esteem, energy, and power in the user who does not normally experience those feelings. Cocaine also provides intense focus and/or stimulation. Alcohol facilitates a cheerful mood or can be calming. Opiates can relieve pain and bring about a feeling of extreme relaxation. Marijuana can enhance an experience (concert, movie, and so forth), and create a subtle buzz. Hallucinogens can create a radical shift in our perceptions.

Adolescents usually begin to experiment with alcohol and drugs within their peer group, to feel a part of. People usually want to feel good about themselves and to fit-in, whether it be at work, in their peer group, or family. Unfortunately, some adolescents have never had those experiences, and using licit or illicit drugs can seem to provide both! Using together, as a pro, creates an experience of togetherness, pushing the boundaries, and examination. Sadly, the party does eventually end! If the individual has focused all her/his attention on achieving a feeling through drugs and/or alcohol, and she/he has not developed and explored more mature modes of operating, that individual will either find a new group of friends that use like him/her or will feel alone and disconnected all over again.

Either case, the substance of choice (e.g. cocaine, heroin) is likely to become the new medium for comfort, despite that its original goal was to have friends and fit in. It is important to note that addicts can actually enjoy and grip onto negative feelings too (shame, loneliness). These negative feelings by no means appear to be fun for the person not suffering from an addiction, but for those who are currently unable to stop, these negative emotions become a place of refuge and/or safe hiding.

To Absolve a Feeling

To some, this is known as self-medicating. The pharmacological makeup of licit and illicit drugs serve many purposes, and they do it well! For example, opiates prescribed medically reduce the feelings of pain. It is important to note that they are called pain-killers, NOT pain-solvers, and are highly addictive. There is a problem when people continue taking licit drugs beyond their medical uses.

Illicit and licit drugs have been shown to remove the unwanted feelings of certain mood states. For example, opiates are used for rage and anxiety, cocaine is abused to remove the feelings of depression and grief, benzodiazepines and alcohol help remove the feelings of anxiety and panic attacks.

We do not like being disappointed, depressed, anxious, angry, or in pain and want to change/remove these uncomfortable mood states. This is normal and part of our individual make-up. People have used substances to remove negative feelings for millennia. Individuals also turn to sex, food, gambling, work, exercise to name a few, to alter intolerable experiences.

To Escape

There is a fine line between a moment of pleasure that connects us to life and a pattern of checking out. It is normal to take time to watch a movie, read a book, or have a beer after a hard day’s work. It is a problem when utilizing and abusing substances becomes a habit of filling the void when you do not know what to do with yourself in a particular moment in time.

Escaping our feelings and reality has plusses and minuses. For example, escaping can give us a quick boost of adrenaline, a sense of urgency, a sense of mastery over our lives. A good high or a good low, an urgent or relaxed state can allow us to escape whatever it is we are feeling in the moment. The downside of chronically seeking an escape is that it can rob us of the very fabric of our lives, leave us without any real memories of what we have done, and cause complete dissociation from the lives we are living. We are essentially left with nothing. Someone who suffers from chronic anxiety or depression for example and who uses drugs and/or alcohol as an escape from these feelings, is often not only blotting out the associated feelings that go with anxiety and depression, but is virtually eliminating all authentic feelings- good and bad- and the memories that go with them. Chronically seeking an escape robs us of the chance to learn coping skills to attain some mastery over the issues that may plague us, and robs us of the ups and downs and joys and sorrows that make up life.

Are you worried about your alcohol and/or drug use and have tried to stop or cut down on your own with little success? Is your substance use effecting other areas of your life? If you are ready to make lasting changes towards your substance use and positive changes in all other aspects of your life, please feel free to contact me. You can change!

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