How do you know if alcohol or drugs are becoming a problem?

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Written by Ellie Hughes, Provisional Psychologist

Alcohol and drugs use in various forms have been a consistent part of human existence since at least our earliest records of human history. Whether it be for medicinal purposes, religious ceremonies or socially accepted use in our day to day lives (e.g. nicotine, caffeine and alcohol), psychoactive substances have always attracted humans. People take alcohol or drugs for many reasons, including relaxation, for recreation or socialising, to sleep, to stay awake or simply to enjoy the effects, and the list goes on. Some substances have a higher chance for risk and dependence, whether it be alcohol or medication. For the most part, whether the substance is legal or illegal, alcohol and drugs can be taken responsibly with limited adverse effects. However, sometimes alcohol and drugs can begin to cause concern for people with misuse or overuse in conjunction with other psychosocial factors. Often times, people may think of those with alcohol and drug ‘problems’ as using in large amounts or frequently. While these factors can certainly be indicators of a problem arising or an increase of chance of risk, there are other ways we can identify whether a substance is becoming a problem. Here are some things to look out for: 

● Is it beginning to interfere with day-to-day commitments and obligations, for example, work, school or home? This could be identified by calling in sick for work to spend time recovering from or using the substance, neglecting household activities or care-taking responsibilities with children. This can also be applied to missing out on hobbies or recreational activities in order to take/use the substance. 

● Is it putting you or someone else in physically harmful or risky situations? For example using a substance and operating machinery or driving, causing falls or accidents, or finding yourself in other high-risk situations. 

● Is it causing legal concerns? For example, drink driving or arrests for disorderly conduct.

● Do you continue your use despite it contributing to recurrent social or interpersonal concerns? For example, is your use the topic of arguments with a partner, friends or family members? Are verbal or physical fights more common when you are intoxicated? 

These are some common situations that may occur if your alcohol or drug use is beginning to become a concern and may be some questions to ask yourself if you are unsure. Furthermore, when alcohol or drug use is frequent it can begin to cause physiological changes in the body which is often called physical dependence. These symptoms can sometimes be unexpected, though nonetheless another indication that your alcohol or drug use may be becoming a problem. Here are some further signs that you may be experiencing physical dependence: 

● Do you need to take or drink more of the substance to feel the same desired effects than you used to? For example, has a glass of wine with dinner turned into a whole bottle of wine to feel the same sense of relaxation? Or are you noticing that you no longer feel ‘drunk’ after a couple of beers like you used to? 

● Are you taking alcohol or drugs in larger amounts than you intended or for a longer period than intended?

● Are you noticing unwanted and uncomfortable symptoms when you stop or reduce your use? These are called ‘withdrawal’ symptoms and differ depending on the substance of choice. If the use of substance is frequent and in large amounts, often withdrawal symptoms can be more severe and sometimes life-threatening (please speak with your doctor if you believe you are or might experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms). 

● Have you tried to cut down, control or stop your use but been unsuccessful or found this difficult? 

● Are you spending a lot of your time trying to obtain the substance, time drinking/using the substance or recovering from it? 

● Do you continue to use the substance despite it causing you physical or psychological concerns or despite knowing it may exacerbate pre existing health concerns? For example, do you continue to drink alcohol even though it leads to you feeling low the next day? Do you continue to smoke cannabis even though it's worsening your anxiety overall? 

As mentioned, people take alcohol or drugs for various reasons. Some people may inadvertently take alcohol or drugs to manage or reduce mental health symptoms. For example, alcohol is a depressant and can allow people to feel more relaxed. Someone who is experiencing symptoms of anxiety may enjoy the feeling of relaxation and reduced anxiety and thus begin to drink more frequently to feel calm. If continued, they may begin to notice the unwanted impacts of the alcohol use in ways mentioned above. There is a complex relationship between mental health symptoms and alcohol and drug use. Research suggests that people experiencing psychological distress are more likely to use alcohol and drugs than those who are not experiencing psychological distress, and at riskier levels. In addition, alcohol and drug use may also trigger the onset of mental health concerns. If you are partaking in alcohol and/or drug use, it is always important to be informed on how to consume responsibly. Responsible use helps to limit risks, reduce the likelihood of dependence occurring, and minimise the chance of worsening/triggering a mental health condition. 

If you believe you have a problem with alcohol or drugs and would like support, there are many types of services and professionals that can help. Speaking with your doctor or contacting the National 24/7 Alcohol and Drug Support Line may be a good place to start. Additionally, ongoing support from a Psychologist may also assist with any underlying or subsequent mental health concerns. 

Adis 24/7 Alcohol and Drug Support: 1800 177 833

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