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The Relative Nature of a Glass of Wine – Substances as Coping Skills

Posted on April 7, 2017

Before we shift into self-care strategies, I want to discuss an often-ignored part of our self-care discussion. Too often, shame and hypocrisy keep us from addressing our own use of substances to manage the stress and trauma of our work. For some of us, this is a coping mechanism; for others, it can border on or eventually become an addiction.

I titled this post, “The Relative Nature of a Glass of Wine” because of a behavior I recognized in my life. Most of us have heard that a glass or two of red wine a day is healthy for our heart. If you go out to a nice bar or restaurant and order a glass of red, you’ll get a small amount of wine in a large glass –what is considered an actual “glass of wine.” However, at home, there is nothing to prevent you from just filling that big glass to the top and calling that your first of two healthy life choices for the evening!

There was a point in my career where, the more stressful my day had been, the fuller that glass got filled. After two big glasses, I felt pretty good, and sometimes I just finished the bottle, because, I reasoned, there wasn’t enough left to bother with putting the cork back in. The wine was effective at making me feel better and helped me to fall asleep, but I often woke up halfway through the night and didn’t get any good sleep afterward.

Waking up tired the next day, I would caffeinate up all morning, and into the afternoon if needed. Wired and tired at the end of the day, I looked forward to that big glass of wine as a reward for a productive day. Wanting a good night’s sleep, I might then take some melatonin, or something stronger, at bedtime. While this helped with the waking up in the middle of the night, it left me dragging in the morning, so I needed to hit the caffeine hard.

After a few months of doing this daily, I realized how much I was relying on substances to manage my entire day. This realization was not a comfortable one for someone who has worked in or around substance abuse treatment most of my career. While I would not label my use as an addiction to any of the substances that were getting me through the day, I was relying on them heavily as a coping mechanism to deal with the stress of my work.

This awareness prompted me to start having honest conversations with my friends about our behavior, and most of my friends in similar fields admitted to falling into the same kinds of patterns. The irony that a bunch of us “healers” were managing our stress through substances, was not lost on me at all. Most of those I talked to did not consider their actions to be an addiction. However, we all had to admit to the intense level of shame we felt in having the conversation about our use.

I thought about those in our field with genetic sensitivity to addiction, and wondered if falling into these behavior patterns impacted them. Over my years in this field, I’ve known many co-workers whom I guessed were struggling with addiction, and others I worried about being at risk for developing one. Most of these people’s employment did not end in a positive way, as many got fired – more than a few for being drunk or high on the job.

It strikes me looking back how, in helping organizations dealing with substance abuse, not one of these situations was talked about honestly. No one ever discussed the team being a dysfunctional mess, or the stressful, even traumatic, work as pieces that may have played some role in our co-workers’ addiction.  Addiction rarely occurs without a high level of stress and, for many, the difficult work of helping others was the stress that pushed them from use to addiction. I think that if we’d said any of this out loud, many of us would then have had to turn the mirror on ourselves, and our own substance use, which we did not necessarily have the emotional capacity to do in those situations.

While I take full ownership for my behavior, I also realize that I had never, until relatively recently, had a conversation with anyone about substance use and burnout in the helping professions. As I’ve started to share these insights at my trainings, I’m surprised by the number of heads nodding in silent agreement when I discuss substances as a coping mechanism. Seeing this reaction, I know that I’m not the only one who has experienced this reality or fallen into these behaviors myself. Whether it is the extra glass of wine with dinner or the third margarita at happy hour on Friday, substances can too easily become our default way to deal with stress.

Unfortunately, this coping mechanism often replaces going to the gym, getting to sleep on time, or practicing mindfulness. Like too many of our clients, substances become our default way to deal with the stress and trauma in our lives. While usually effective in the short-term to help us feel better, we eventually start to experience weight gain, sleep problems, and other issues associated with both substance use and a lack of healthier behaviors.

Since having this realization, I’ve stopped buying wine and other alcohol for the house, and started to pay attention to why I’m having this beer or glass of whiskey. I’ve been surprised at how much of my drinking had become a response to stress, rather than something for enjoyment. Additionally, when I do have a nice glass of something now, I enjoy it, instead of downing it quickly.

I want to open the comment section today to any thoughts or insights on this topic. I feel we must remove the shame and guilt around this subject in order to have honest discussions about one very real danger of burnout and helping trauma.

22 responses to “The Relative Nature of a Glass of Wine – Substances as Coping Skills”

  1. Maria Lopez says:

    Wow! I love this and it is speaks to my personal experience struggling to cope in an increasingly stressful work environment. I agree that speaking about it is so important, so that we are aware on how we are coping. In addition, a tool that significantly helped me consider my role in coping was looking through the lens of “Unconditional Responsibility”, by Fred Kofman. His explanation of the victim and the player dynamic we tend to fall into when problems arise in the workplace helped me change my perspective completely. In keeping with the victim – player lens, I could have coped with the stress in a healthier way. I was always processing the situation with a very negative person who fed my resentment, I was drinking heavily during the evening just to try and drown out my extreme anxiety and I couldn’t sleep because I was drinking and wasn’t exercising because I didn’t have energy and I didn’t have energy because of the way I was treating myself. If I had maintained a better diet, with exercise and healthy processing with a different colleague or therapist I would have been my better self. What made such a dramatic impact for me by looking through this lens was that I didn’t have to be a victim, I have the power to change my situation and that was hugely empowering because I did not have to let things happen to me and accept them, I can change them. I often revisit this time, it pops up and I thought through the circumstances that led up it, unfolded and how I could have handled the situation differently. This process helped me immensely to move forward, the other piece that helped me was to learn more about how I am set up to operate and by that I mean looking into the neuroscience data that is out there. It shows how the brain reacts – it is a social animal and safe connections with others are vital for health and healthy collaborations. I now understand the brain is set up to reject pain, minimize danger and maximize reward. It takes a lot of hard work to be able to overcome negative experiences and create pathways that enable better coping skills. I am a work in progress but by continually learning and self-reflection my coping skills have improved greatly. Thank you for the dialog – this is leadership at it’s best.

    • Matt Bennett says:

      Thanks so much my friend for your honesty and sharing your journey. I find your comment enlightening because what you went through (maybe I’m projecting my own experience) might have been traumatic for you. This would have naturally put you in the victim stance where we are not so logical and look for more immediate ways out of our pain and frustration. As I’ve opened up this conversation I’m really appreciating how difficult healthy self-care is because booze is such and easy and relatively cheap alternative. Thanks again for sharing.

  2. Maria Lopez says:

    Wow! I love this and it is speaks to my personal experience struggling to cope in an increasingly stressful work environment. I agree that speaking about it is so important, so that we are aware on how we are coping. In addition, a tool that significantly helped me consider my role in coping was looking through the lens of “Unconditional Responsibility”, by Fred Kofman. His explanation of the victim and the player dynamic we tend to fall into when problems arise in the workplace helped me change my perspective completely. In keeping with the victim – player lens, I could have coped with the stress in a healthier way. I was always processing the situation with a very negative person who fed my resentment, I was drinking heavily during the evening just to try and drown out my extreme anxiety and I couldn’t sleep because I was drinking and wasn’t exercising because I didn’t have energy and I didn’t have energy because of the way I was treating myself. If I had maintained a better diet, with exercise and healthy processing with a different colleague or therapist I would have been my better self. What made such a dramatic impact for me by looking through this lens was that I didn’t have to be a victim, I have the power to change my situation and that was hugely empowering because I did not have to let things happen to me and accept them, I can change them. I often revisit this time, it pops up and I thought through the circumstances that led up it, unfolded and how I could have handled the situation differently. This process helped me immensely to move forward, the other piece that helped me was to learn more about how I am set up to operate and by that I mean looking into the neuroscience data that is out there. It shows how the brain reacts – it is a social animal and safe connections with others are vital for health and healthy collaborations. I now understand the brain is set up to reject pain, minimize danger and maximize reward. It takes a lot of hard work to be able to overcome negative experiences and create pathways that enable better coping skills. I am a work in progress but by continually learning and self-reflection my coping skills have improved greatly. Thank you for the dialog – this is leadership at it’s best.

    • Matt Bennett says:

      Thanks so much my friend for your honesty and sharing your journey. I find your comment enlightening because what you went through (maybe I’m projecting my own experience) might have been traumatic for you. This would have naturally put you in the victim stance where we are not so logical and look for more immediate ways out of our pain and frustration. As I’ve opened up this conversation I’m really appreciating how difficult healthy self-care is because booze is such and easy and relatively cheap alternative. Thanks again for sharing.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thank you

  4. Anonymous says:

    Thank you

  5. Robyn McKeen says:

    I can relate completely and appreciate you bringing this up. A few years ago, I recognized my nightly wine ritual as a coping habit I wanted to change and replace with healthier ways to relieve stress. I made the shift initially by telling myself “Have a cup of chamomile or other calming tea first, and then if I still want that glass of wine really badly, I can have it.” Almost every time, the ritual of calming down with something nice to drink and settling into the evening was all I really needed. Now my habit is to save the alcoholic (and calorie-filled) beverages for celebrations and enjoying social moments.

    • Matt Bennett says:

      Great job! I think you bring up a point that I’ve realized in my own journey. I enjoy a great drink! I love beer, wine, and hard liquor. If tastes good and makes been feel great (in the short term at least). Many places in Denver are starting to serve Kombucha (a fermented tea with almost no alcohol). I love the taste but even more so, I can sit at a bar and have a few and not miss alcohol at all. Finding a good alternative allows me to also save the nice pour of whiskey for a special occasion!

  6. Robyn McKeen says:

    I can relate completely and appreciate you bringing this up. A few years ago, I recognized my nightly wine ritual as a coping habit I wanted to change and replace with healthier ways to relieve stress. I made the shift initially by telling myself “Have a cup of chamomile or other calming tea first, and then if I still want that glass of wine really badly, I can have it.” Almost every time, the ritual of calming down with something nice to drink and settling into the evening was all I really needed. Now my habit is to save the alcoholic (and calorie-filled) beverages for celebrations and enjoying social moments.

    • Matt Bennett says:

      Great job! I think you bring up a point that I’ve realized in my own journey. I enjoy a great drink! I love beer, wine, and hard liquor. If tastes good and makes been feel great (in the short term at least). Many places in Denver are starting to serve Kombucha (a fermented tea with almost no alcohol). I love the taste but even more so, I can sit at a bar and have a few and not miss alcohol at all. Finding a good alternative allows me to also save the nice pour of whiskey for a special occasion!

  7. Anonymous says:

    Love this!! Thanks for sharing,…

  8. Anonymous says:

    Love this!! Thanks for sharing,…

  9. Debby says:

    A colleague and I were just discussing this!…as a why OK for adults to drink alcohol and not for children. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. We may not think about it as chemically altering our mood/feelings – even after a day of that discussion and counter measures with our clients.
    Good thoughts.

    • Matt Bennett says:

      Thanks Debby and great point. Many people I talk to feel great shame from the perceived hypocrisy of talking to our clients about healthy habits and then not realizing that in our own situation. I’m challenged people to separate the two things. We are helping the people the best we can AND we have our own healthy and unhealthy coping skills to deal with the stress from the work. Eliminating the shame brings us closer to action!

  10. Debby says:

    A colleague and I were just discussing this!…as a why OK for adults to drink alcohol and not for children. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. We may not think about it as chemically altering our mood/feelings – even after a day of that discussion and counter measures with our clients.
    Good thoughts.

    • Matt Bennett says:

      Thanks Debby and great point. Many people I talk to feel great shame from the perceived hypocrisy of talking to our clients about healthy habits and then not realizing that in our own situation. I’m challenged people to separate the two things. We are helping the people the best we can AND we have our own healthy and unhealthy coping skills to deal with the stress from the work. Eliminating the shame brings us closer to action!

  11. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    Mine is a different cultural experience with alcoholic beverages. In my immigrant family, the children were introduced to wine early. We were served it at the dinner table, occasionally, usually when company came over, or on holidays. There was never a connotation related to stress; nor was there a negative sense about it; neither was there an exaggerated appreciation of it. At home, there were no models of abuse. The adults around us drank in moderation, by and large. Communal gatherings were for story-telling, gossip, soft- or sugar-drinks, wine or Vermouth and liquors. Earlier on, cigarette smoke undulated above such gatherings. Personally, inebriation brings sickness, not a high. Drunkenness was not appealing, therefore not a goal or ambition. It was jogging that became a tool for emotional release; then mental coaching, reading, music and other such distractions. Substance abuse is the impediment to our fulfillment, really. It is used by those who usher us to risky and questionable behavior. The debate about substance use and abuse always seems to omit the issue of root cause and provenance. Why the phenomenon? Why is it a lasting crisis? Why are users punished more than traffickers? It is a trap.

  12. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    Mine is a different cultural experience with alcoholic beverages. In my immigrant family, the children were introduced to wine early. We were served it at the dinner table, occasionally, usually when company came over, or on holidays. There was never a connotation related to stress; nor was there a negative sense about it; neither was there an exaggerated appreciation of it. At home, there were no models of abuse. The adults around us drank in moderation, by and large. Communal gatherings were for story-telling, gossip, soft- or sugar-drinks, wine or Vermouth and liquors. Earlier on, cigarette smoke undulated above such gatherings. Personally, inebriation brings sickness, not a high. Drunkenness was not appealing, therefore not a goal or ambition. It was jogging that became a tool for emotional release; then mental coaching, reading, music and other such distractions. Substance abuse is the impediment to our fulfillment, really. It is used by those who usher us to risky and questionable behavior. The debate about substance use and abuse always seems to omit the issue of root cause and provenance. Why the phenomenon? Why is it a lasting crisis? Why are users punished more than traffickers? It is a trap.

  13. Matt Bennett says:

    Great points my friend. Your cultural perspective always gets me thinking!

  14. Matt Bennett says:

    Great points my friend. Your cultural perspective always gets me thinking!

  15. Diana M. says:

    Thank you for this post. Might it be good to remind the readers of the current medical and WHO recommendations for alcohol consumption, the CAGE and other simple assessments?

  16. Diana M. says:

    Thank you for this post. Might it be good to remind the readers of the current medical and WHO recommendations for alcohol consumption, the CAGE and other simple assessments?

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