Substance Abuse During the Holidays & Beyond

Dec 10, 2011 | 2011 Articles, Mental Health

by Emily Durbin
& Sherry Walling

If drugs and alcohol are so bad, why do people use?

In low doses, these substances can elicit positive effects like euphoria, mild stimulation, relaxation, and a lowered sense of inhibition and anxiety. However, prolonged use can garner an array of negative consequences. In the wake of continued worldwide financial woes, use and abuse rates of drugs and alcohol are up in the United States. A 2010 survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that 51.9% of Americans age 12 and older had at least one alcoholic beverage in the last 30 days and 8.9% of the population used illicit drugs, compared to rates almost a full percentage point lower in the previous year. And an estimated 23.1 million Americans are addicted to drugs or alcohol, but only 2.6 million, or 11.2% of those in need, actually receive help (SAMHSA, 2011).

Every year, more than 40 million serious illnesses or injuries can be attributed to substance abuse (NIH, 2010). Beyond the expected motor skill or brain function impairment, heavy use can lead to an increased instance of cancer, stroke, heart problems and liver disease. Dependency is also positively correlated with higher rates of domestic violence, divorce, unemployment, and homelessness. Substance abuse affects millions of families worldwide—across every social class, race and culture.

How Use Becomes Abuse

In the beginning, drugs and alcohol might be used to feel good or to stop feeling bad, but soon these positive effects wear down, turning a desire into a need. There is no universal formula for when occasional or social use becomes abuse or addiction—there is no threshold of amount, type, or frequency. A good rule of thumb is if using negatively affects physical health, social responsibilities, and personal relationships it may have become abuse. Addiction is further defined as including physical and psychological dependence where rational thought is overrun with denial and continued use is pursued even in the face of substantial harm. Drugs and alcohol activate a surge of dopamine in the brain, associating the substance with extreme pleasure. The brain can actually change with continued use so that it craves the drug just as it would food or water.

Predisposing Factors

There are certain indicators of an increased likelihood of substance abuse and addiction. These would include having a family history of substance abuse, past trauma, a chaotic childhood environment, underdeveloped or poor social and coping skills, a mental health diagnosis (particularly anxiety, depression, and bipolar), and an environment of approval toward drug and alcohol fueled behavior.

Signs: A problem develops

Individuals who regularly use drugs or alcohol, feel guilt or shame about that use, lie to hide it from loved ones, deny evidence presented to them by family or friends about the negative consequences of their use (e.g., legal, financial, relational), or are willing to go to dangerous lengths to obtain and use their substance of choice no longer exert total control over this issue.

Symptoms of Substance Dependency

In addition to all of the signs mentioned above, addiction can be diagnosed when life revolves around getting, using and recovering from a substance. Use continues in order to avoid or relieve symptoms of withdrawal (anxiety, trembling, nausea, insomnia, irritability, fatigue, and headaches). And often the user has built up an extreme tolerance (they need more to feel the same effects) so abuse behaviors become more extreme. In severe cases of addiction, hallucinations, seizures, extreme fever, agitation, and death can occur.

Getting Help

Treatment programs serve to counteract the physical and psychological dependence of addiction. The first step is to admit that there is a problem. Next, support and an appropriate treatment program should be sought out (rehab, counseling, self-help) where accountability and new ways to deal with life’s challenges can be explored. To make your search easier, you can go online where you are likely to stumble upon Promises Malibu treatment center reviews or other similar articles about rehab.

Top 5 Myths about Addiction and Getting Help

1. “I can stop at any time”—it’s not a question of ‘want to’ or willpower. This statement gives the addict a false sense of control and an excuse not to stop.
2. “This is my problem alone”—addiction affects friends, family members, co-workers, really everyone that the addict has contact with.
3. “I don’t drink/use every day and still go to work/school so I can’t be an addict”—the danger of a high functioning addict is that the fall will be even further.
4. “An addict must hit rock bottom for treatment to work”—recovery is an option at any point in the use-abuse cycle and the sooner the better.
5. “They have to want help for treatment to work”—voluntary and involuntary programs have very similar success rates. What really matters is how much they will work to change once given the chance.

Characteristics of a Successful Program

Programs that include the following have seen the most success:

1. A complex view of addiction as a treatable disease
2. A belief that treatment should be individualized not universal
3. A plan that focuses on multiple needs of the individual (beyond the substance abuse)
4. A plan that is continually assessed and modified based on changing need
5. An emphasis on dealing with denial (looking honestly at the negative effects of behavior)

The key to lasting recovery is a commitment to exploring the root causes of addiction and searching out an appropriate support system.

Strategies for Coping During the Holidays

It is especially hard during the winter holiday season if you are a recovering addict. So many holiday gatherings include drinking alcohol, and dreary winter weather can contribute to feelings of depression, anxiety, and loneliness. There are three techniques to help keep you grounded and on track:

1. Think in the present—don’t dwell on the past or become overwhelmed with the future, take it ‘one step at a time’.
2. Stop ‘all or nothing’ and ‘what if?’ thinking—these absolutes and infinites are unrealistic and just serve to raise anxiety.
3. Fight isolation by actively searching out support.

Message to Family and Friends Signs of Drug Abuse to Look For

Physical changes due to drug use include pupils that are larger or smaller than they should be; tremors; slurred speech; and changes in appetite, sleep or hygiene. Behavioral changes include a drop in attendance or performance at work or school, an unexplained need for money, acting secretive or getting in to trouble. Psychological changes include shifts in personality, attitude and mood including increased anxiety, fear, and paranoia. As use becomes more intense, these signs will be easier to spot and the disruptions to life will become greater and more frequent.

Common Responses to Addiction

Family and friends of an addict often feel obligated to cover for or clean up after their loved one. Many try to take on the burden of their addiction and may even work more so they can financially support the addict. This cycle of dependence can lead to shame, fear and self-blame. Sometimes it may seem easier to ignore the issue and deny that any of it is happening, but this is dangerous for you and others around you. It is important to get support for what you are going through just as the addict needs support to recover.

Approaching the Issue of Addiction

It is important to speak up if you think someone you love has a problem with drugs or alcohol. If you approach the topic conveying support and not judgment, and cite specific evidence of how their addiction has negatively impacted your life and theirs, you can feel confident that you are doing what you can to help. However, using threats, bribes, or emotional appeals to coerce your loved one into treatment might lead to more shame and guilt activating their compulsion to use. Also, the subject of sobriety should not be dealt with when they are under the influence and not able to think clearly.

You must remember that the only actions under your control are your own. Do not engage in self-blame for their actions of refusal to seek treatment. Do what you can, focus on what is in your power, and feel confident that you have tried.

Note on Prevention

Of course, it is easier to fight addiction before it ever starts. Prevention programs now focus on elementary school children, stressing three areas: correcting misconceptions about drug and alcohol use, preparing for peer pressure through resistance skill building, and outlining the negative consequences of abuse. The most successful programs also aim to develop an environment of social disapproval to instill an inherent dislike of drugs and alcohol abuse in children.


Narcotics Anonymous

Alcoholics Anonymous For general information or to connect to a local chapter

1-800-662-HELP or SAMHSA.govFor literature and a free referral to substance abuse and mental health services
For information on addiction and treatment and support options

Check out KRL’s Mental Health section for more related articles. Also check out the International Bipolar Foundation page here at KRL.

Emily Durbin is a senior at Fresno Pacific University, a psychology major,
and the president of the psychology club.

Sherry Walling holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology & an M.A. in theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. She completed a predoctoral fellowship in clinical-community psychology at Yale University School of Medicine & a postdoctoral fellowship in clinical research at the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Boston University School of Medicine. She is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Fresno Pacific University, an Adjunct Professor in the Marriage, Family & Child Counseling Program at Fresno Pacific & a licensed clinical psychologist on staff at House Psychiatric Clinic.


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