Addictive substances – a good coping strategy?

Addictive substances

If you’ve ever been addicted to a substance – coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, prescription or recreational drugs, for instance – you know how you grow to depend on that substance whenever you’re feeling anxious.

It’s a way of coping with difficult feelings – such as anxiety.  We have other ways of coping – some better than others, and addiction is one strategy that can have serious consequences.

I happened across an article by Dr. Joseph Troncale that specifically addresses the connection between drugs or alcohol and anxiety. He talks about how self-medicating with drugs or alcohol in order to calm down ends up generating more anxiety, culminating in a vicious downward spiral: we feel stressed, and medicate this feeling with drugs, which can often lead to feeling more stressed, leading to more drugs to dull that increased anxiety. In his words “This cycle of self-medication and rebound anxiety digs a deeper and deeper hole for the addicted person making treatment and breaking this downward spiral harder and harder as time goes by”.

Using drugs or any addictive substance or behavior generates a spiking pattern, where we swing between feeling high and feeling crappy, with no in-between.  In the normal pattern in a day, we go through a more gentle wave of experience: we notice something, decide to engage with it, engage with it, then withdraw when we notice something new.  The in-between is the connection and the gradual withdrawal.  In the spiking pattern, there is no connection or gradual withdrawal – it’s either all on or all off.

Using an addictive substance or activity lets us bypass any discomfort of contact or withdrawal, we bypass anything beyond the initial sensation, spiking instead to a high provided by the drug. Once the effect of the drug wears off, that feeling we’ve been avoiding – like anxiety – resurfaces and we spike to a low, and we avoid that feeling by engaging instead with the addiction.  The anxiety doesn’t actually go away, but remains suppressed until we stop the addiction cycle.

There are a few ways of stopping the cycle. Dr. Troncale prefers the monitored gradual withdrawal approach. Twelve-step programs offer a different approach that work for many people. A third approach is finding a spiritual path that inspires and supports you. What any one person chooses and finds works for them may not work for the next person.

The important thing is to know what is happening so that you can make an informed decision about how you want to live.


Maryanne Nicholls is a Registered Psychotherapist.  To find out more, gain access to her weekly newsletter, meditations and programmes, sign up at .


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