Addicted to coping

Many people are noticing that the COVID lockdown has led to them developing bad habits and even serious addictions. The change in circumstances was the precipitating factor but now that restrictions have eased, many people are still left with their habits and addictions and are wondering what they can do about them.

The COVID lockdown created uncertainty and change leading to people feeling out of control and at risk. Apart from showing up as social anxiety (see post on that here), people were left to deal with the feelings and thoughts that were generated by the situation, which were novel and unpleasant.

Consider David. He ‘rewarded’ himself with a few glasses of wine for getting through a hard day of zoom meetings. It helped him unwind and relax. After 6 weeks in lockdown, he now not only looked forward to his ‘day-enders’ (as he called them), but felt he could not do without them. He was drinking more than half a bottle a night, and most likely a full bottle (if he got past 1/2, there was not enough for the next night). David had put on significant weight, woke up feeling poorly and at the end of lockdown felt he was stuck with a new habit he was now quite ashamed of.

Consider Rebecca. She loved chocolate and sweet foods. What she noticed that when she ate and filled he stomach, it seemed to displace the unpleasant feelings her anxiety generated. The lockdown made her feel incredibly anxious, so she found herself in the fridge or the cake tin many times during the day. She put on 26 kgs, and felt that she was ‘addicted to sweets’. Her weight increase made her feel even more anxious about the end of lockdown – she was very unhappy with how she looked.

Consider Teo. He would spend hours on social media to distract himself from all of the thoughts and feelings of uncertainty and distress that’s seemed to be with him constantly. One ad on facebook was for a gambling site – and what started as a ‘bit of fun’ saw Teo blowing significant amounts of money and spending longer and longer periods of time gaming online. Teo now had run up debts that he couldn’t afford, and would even gamble when he was supposed to be on zoom calls for work. It was causing him significant relationship issues with his partner. It seemed that he would find himself on the app or the site without realising how he got there.

Consider Denise. Her anxiety impacted her sleep. She tried some old painkillers that were prescribed after an operation and they seemed to work. They also really took the ‘edge off’ and helped her get through the day. She not only took them when she felt her unpleasant feelings emerging, but started to take them ‘just in case’ the feelings might emerge. She began doctor shopping to get more of the pain killers and got really angry when a doctor confronted her about her use of them. She even found herself lying to doctors to get more supplies.

In each case, the person was trying to escape the bad feelings or thoughts that they were generating in response to their circumstance. As this was the ‘goal’ (stopping the feelings or thoughts) then any way this was achieved was seen as a success. The comfort of chocolate, the ‘buzz’ and relaxation of a few glasses of wine, the distraction of social media and the excitement of the chase on the gambling app and the numbing of feelings with prescription pain killers. Each acted as a trapdoor out of the feelings and thoughts that were so uncomfortable.

Unfortunately each trapdoor only led to maladaptive behaviour, addictions and additional problems.

What people started doing was seeking escape or distraction. This led to a behaviour or strategy that seemed to work. Because it worked, they used this approach as their ‘go to’ method when paced with the unpleasant circumstances again. This new behaviour became the habit, and from here the person gets stuck. People were now addicted to their method of coping.

Rather than dealing with the underlying issues that generate the discomfort, the coping strategy simply distracts from its outcomes and can create new problems of its own. If the ‘coping strategy’ was non harmful (or even beneficial), then it can enhance the life of the person. What if David took up exercise and went for a half-hour jog after working all day? Or if Rebecca ‘escaped’ into writing a kids book? Or Teo took up crossword puzzles or online chess? Not every coping strategy is bad – it is just that once we find a trapdoor, it is easy to not check in and see if it might have harmful side effects as we establish that as our new normal response.

All coping strategies also fail to deal with what is creating the underlying discomforts or issues in the first place. You will often see in such cases people stopping one bad coping strategy and replacing it with another (equally harmful) one as they fail to deal with what lies beneath, just adopt a different strategy to cope.

To break this addiction to the distraction offered by coping, it can be valuable to deconstruct the bad habit and get to dealing with the real issue that sits beneath.

It can be useful for the person to:

  • Recognise that their habit is a coping strategy.
  • Explore what sits beneath – what thoughts or feelings are they generating that they are trying to escape?
  • Recognise that these thoughts and feelings are a trigger, and to pay attention for when they arise so the habit pattern (trigger-action) can be broken.
  • Consider behaviour modification techniques that can then be employed to introduce better coping strategies.

The person can also seek to address the underlying issue that creates the thoughts and feelings in the first place. They can then develop whole new and more valuable ways to get unstuck without needing coping strategies at all.

By dealing with how they are generating and responding to their thoughts and feelings – often as a direct result of anxious or depressive personal assessments – it is possible to shift from where they are stuck to make any coping strategy unnecessary. The person can simply move on with their life, moving past what had them stuck and free of their coping strategy that was creating so many additional problems of its own.

Imagine where you are stuck. Consider where you have generated an unhelpful coping strategy. When you know it is time to do something different and experience life in a much more positive way, then it is time to work with Reflective Resolutions.

Contact me now if you are ready to break your addiction to coping and get unstuck.