Your grandfather was an alcoholic. You were emotionally mistreated as a child. And your dysfunctional family continues to complicate your life on a daily basis. With this many risk factors, the odds of avoiding addiction certainly aren’t the most favorable. While you can’t control your genes, your past or the family you come from, getting hooked on drugs is not inevitable. Here are a few simple behaviors you can change now to help avoid a lifetime battle with addiction:
The only surefire way to avoid drug or alcohol addiction is to refrain from experimenting in the first place. However, as we know from the failed War on Drugs, this “just say no” approach simply doesn’t work. People are curious, bored and in pain, and have always looked to drugs and alcohol to feel better.
Still, understanding your personal risk factors can help you make an educated decision. Do you have a family history of drug or alcohol problems? Have you struggled with depression, anxiety or other mental health issues? If you’re at high risk for addiction, don’t take the chance – invest your energies in finding healthier ways to feel good.
Surrounding yourself with drug users creates a sub-culture where getting high is acceptable and even encouraged. An occasional drink with friends is innocent enough, but being around people who have few interests outside of partying can be a set-up for addiction. Even if you think your strong values and decision-making skills make you immune to peer pressure, it’s human nature to want to fit in and share interests with the people close to you (hence the popularity of Facebook, Pinterest, and other social media sites).
Social connection is a basic human need. We need other people to support us during difficult times and to witness our lives in happier times. While not everyone can or should be a social butterfly, being a hermit not only puts you at greater risk of addiction but also diminishes your overall satisfaction with life.
Without a social network, you’re more likely to be bored and lack a sense of purpose in life, which are reasons people frequently cite for experimenting with drugs. You may not notice that your drug or alcohol use is getting out of control, but the people who care about you will. Isolating also can be a sign of mental illness, which increases the risk of substance abuse.
Instead of hiding out, keep yourself occupied in more productive pursuits where you’re likely to meet people with similar interests. Take a class, start a new hobby, volunteer in the community – all of these can change your perspective and improve your outlook, thereby shielding you from addiction.
How do you cope with feelings of sadness, anger and disappointment? Do you ignore them and hope they’ll go away, or do you take steps to resolve them?
If you can’t face your feelings and problems head-on, you’re bound to find some sort of escape. For some, it may be shopping or gambling; for others it may be food, sex or drugs. Using drugs to cope may be a sign that you’re self-medicating an underlying mental health condition like depression or anxiety. Without proper diagnosis and treatment, those suppressed feelings may drive you to abuse drugs or alcohol. Roughly half of people with substance use disorders also have some form of mental illness.
The problem with self-medication is that drugs can only numb the pain temporarily, and in the long run, end up causing more pain. The longer feelings are suppressed, the longer other mental health issues go undiagnosed and unaddressed and the fewer healthy coping mechanisms you’re able to put into practice.
People who have difficulty relaxing, being themselves and having fun may depend on drugs or alcohol to put them at ease. Studies show that the addictive mind is one that desperately wants to feel good but derives less pleasure from the things that usually make people happy. Although drug use may seem fun at first, the brain is programmed to gain less pleasure from it over time, setting you up for double the disappointment later on.
Some of the brightest, most influential thinkers are risk takers. But we’re not talking about strategic risk-taking. We’re talking about the kinds of risks you later regret. Maybe your thirst for novelty gets someone hurt or your inability to control your impulses ends up irreparably damaging your reputation. Once you’ve reached this point, drug use seems less troublesome. After all, what’s one more risk?
You could exercise to get better sleep, but why? There’s a pill for that. Most of us could benefit from a change in diet to lower our cholesterol, but no need. There’s a pill for that, too. If you’re more likely to pop a pill than change your lifestyle, you’re not alone. It’s the American way. But it’s also the addict’s way.
The quick-fix mentality prevents people from addressing the real issues affecting their physical and mental health. Change requires a shift in thinking. Rather than seeking out immediate gratification, dig deeper to find the underlying cause of your discomfort and consider non-drug alternatives. This may mean occasionally taking the harder path, and perhaps suffering a little in the process.
No one is destined to become an addict. Like diabetes, heart disease and other chronic diseases with a strong behavioral component, you can minimize your risk of addiction by changing how you think and act. Will it be easy, quick or fun? Not likely, but isn’t that the point?
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. He is CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of addiction treatment centers that includes Promises, The Ranch outside Nashville, and Right Step in Texas.
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Last reviewed: 3 Jan 2013