Anxious looking man drinking alcohol

Alcohol, destructive coping and mental health

We all have different ways of dealing with life’s stresses. Unfortunately, some of those preferred coping mechanisms can be counter-productive to long-term mental health.

  • Alcohol abuse kills almost twice as many men as women.[1]
  • Many blokes use alcohol as a coping mechanism, even though it can make many common mental health conditions worse.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ most recent Causes of Death data made headlines last year after it reported that the suicide rate had increased.

Amongst its findings were alarming statistics which pointed to significant underlying issues specific to men. Not only were men three times more likely to die from suicide — the rate of deaths in which alcohol was a factor was at its highest since 1998.

 

 

Recorded deaths (per 100,000) in which alcohol was a factor were at their highest since 1998. Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics.

 

These disturbing facts suggest that men are not seeking help when they need it and are instead turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms like alcohol, or worse still, choosing to take their own life. In part, this tells us that there is a need to adapt our mental health system to better support men. However, it also indicates that we need more information about how unhealthy coping mechanisms like alcohol can impact the physical and mental processes that lie behind common issues like anxiety, stress and depression.

 

Male and female differences in help seeking

There’s no significant difference in the rate of mental health issues experienced by men and women, yet men are less likely to seek help for their mental health. In fact, men represent only 40% of the access to Medicare-subsidised mental health services.[2]

There are an enormous number of complex and often related cultural, economic, social and other reasons why men are less likely to seek help for their mental wellbeing. When they do, it’s often only after a stress or worry has been a problem long enough to become a serious mental health concern.

Regardless of why men are less likely to get help for their mental wellbeing, the consequence tends to be that many blokes resort to unhealthy coping mechanism like alcohol abuse.

 

Alcohol and mental health

Alcohol consumption in Australia is seen as a normal part of everyday culture. It is consumed during celebrations, at social events and is often integral to entertainment. However, excessive alcohol consumption is responsible for a growing number of deaths, both directly due to the physical effects of alcohol (e.g. drink driving, health effects like fatty liver, alcohol-related violence, etc.) and indirectly due to the mental effects of alcohol (e.g. making underlying stresses or worries seem worse).

Alcohol can be problematic for mental health for a number of reasons.

  • One of the short term effects of alcohol is that it gives people temporary relief. The long term effects of alcohol are very different — alcohol over time can actually strengthen and maintain the problem.
  • Another one of the side effects of alcohol is that it can prevent people from understanding how to best deal with their challenges and find solutions in positive ways.
  • Regular alcohol abuse (perhaps you’ve been told or wondered, “do I have a drinking problem?”) brings a host of additional potential issues such as unpredictable changes in mood, effects on temper or impulsiveness, damage to intimate and social relationships, effects on health, financial or even legal consequences.

 

“…alcohol can be the difference between feeling angry about a situation and feeling angry and responding with violence…”

 

Alcohol is a depressant. This means it actively affects how you perceive and feel about the world around you. For example, alcohol can be the difference between feeling angry about a situation and feeling angry and responding with violence.

Anger is just one example of a negative emotion that can be heightened due to alcohol abuse. Its active chemicals can make you experience the very feelings you’re trying to suppress: anxiety, lack of motivation, depression or just general moodiness.

There are many complex bio-chemical reasons for this. For example, alcohol can lower the serotonin levels in your brain, chemicals essential for regulating mood. This means a depressed person could feel more depressed when drinking too much.

Another reason why alcohol can make underlying concerns worse is in the way it affects sleep. You might wake up in the middle of the night and not be able to get back to sleep. Alcohol may also result in less rapid eye moment (REM) sleep, considered the most important type of sleep.

The problem with drinking before bed lies in the fact that sleep is crucial to good mental health. Getting interrupted or poor quality sleep can therefore make existing worries or concerns appear worse the next day.

 

Understanding coping mechanisms

Understanding why so many men use grog to deal with their stresses means understanding the underlying reasons why people drink or engage in other harmful behaviour.

It is human nature to try and avoid the unpleasant feelings that result from stress-inducing situations. This is why we seek ways to remove ourselves from those feelings. These are known as coping behaviours or coping mechanisms.

Coping behaviours are strategies that people use to overcome life’s problems or to protect themselves from psychological damage.

Hundreds of different coping strategies have been identified, but some are more effective and healthier than others.

There are good mechanisms, which psychologists call ‘adaptive’ or constructive strategies and behaviours. These are coping mechanisms that help resolve the problem in a healthy way and which reduce stress.

There are also bad mechanisms. Psychologists call these ‘maladaptive’ (often also referred to as destructive or unhealthy) strategies. Rather than resolving the problem and helping deal with it long-term, these provide short-term relief and don’t address the underlying issues.

The drive to avoid dealing directly with an unpleasant issue is almost always at the heart of an unhealthy coping mechanism. Alcohol is a classic example, as it can provide immediate relief but not address the problem at heart.

This is why alcohol abuse is considered an unhealthy coping mechanism. It may provide short-term relief. However, it does not resolve the underlying issue and can in fact result in greater harm. You don’t have to be an alcoholic or suffer from alcoholism for it to be harmful to your mental wellbeing.

 

7 healthy coping mechanisms

Healthy coping mechanisms are ones that can help with those feelings of stress and worry, which can lead to long-term improvements, and which most importantly, don’t cause long-lasting physical and mental harm. Here are seven ways of dealing with difficulties in life which are recognised as being healthy coping mechanisms.

1) Talk it out with a professional

MensLine Australia exists to help blokes deal with their stresses and worries. The people you speak to over the phone are professionals who can help you identify sensible ways to tackle your concerns.

2) Reach out to a mate or family member

Talking about what’s on your mind to a mate or family member is one of the best things you can do. It’s been consistently shown to help and make it easier to deal with hard situations. You may be pleasantly surprised by the support you receive.

3) Exercise and stay active

The mental health benefits of exercise are widely documented. Not only does regular exercise (including moderate exercise) help your body, it can greatly help with stress, anxiety and depression.

4) Try mindfulness

Yes, mindfulness. You’d be surprised at how many world-class athletes and sportsmen use mindfulness and meditation. It’s not hard to do and can have a fantastically calming effect on your outlook, mood and concentration.

5) Eat better

Over-indulging in junk food and eating excessive portions are well-known unhealthy coping mechanisms. Thankfully, it’s never too late to start eating healthy. You don’t have to go on a crash diet either – it can start with something as simple as eating less junk food or sugar.

6) Give yourself more downtime

The antidote to stress is relaxation. In fact, mental relaxation has been linked to better health. So give yourself downtime to potter in the shed, fish, read, play the Xbox, read the paper or do whatever healthy relaxing activity you enjoy.

7) Make or maintain social connections

We are all at heart social creatures. Being around people whose company we enjoy or whose interests we share is fundamentally good for your mental health. So consider joining a club or society, volunteering, or catching up with friends or family.

 

[1] Australian Bureau of Statistics – Causes of Death, Australia, 2016.

[2] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare Medicare subsidised mental health-related services 2016-17

 

If you need alcohol help or just need someone to talk to, you can call our MensLine Australia counsellors on 1300 78 99 78, or register for free online counselling.

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