Teen Addict

Substance as a Coping Mechanism – How We Develop Problems


Most addicts can trace their addiction back to a ‘first experiences’ that occurred in adolescence.

The period after puberty is one of massive ups-and-downs. Powerful feelings, ones we’ve never had to deal with before, assault us on a daily basis.

On a physical level our brains are in a period of massive re-development.

On a personal level, who we are is undergoing redevelopment.

On a social level, what others expect of us is also going through fundamental change.

All teens, as a simple part of growing up, have to find things that they can rely on to provide stability through to ups and downs that this period brings us.

Some of us find healthy ways of coping. Some of us find unhealthy ways.

This article is to help understand what happens when we find unhealthy ways, and how to help ourselves and those we love re-establish coping mechanisms, so we can deal with stress and anxiety in a way that makes our lives better, not worse.

It’s About Stress, Anxiety, and Suffering

When we are children, the world is full of wonder.

As we grow, we become exposed to many of the less-than-wonderful aspects of life. To a child, the greatest pain we’ve ever known is likely to be a skinned knee or perhaps a broken bone, so we cannot even conceive of the internal struggles inherent in adult life.

Adolescent ADdictAdolescence is the part of life where we start to experience things on a completely different, internal level. The development of our emotional faculties presents us with good feelings and bad, but in way’s we’ve never felt them before. We learned as children that when we hurt ourselves, we could run to mom and dad for a kiss to make everything better.

But these internal, emotional pains are ones we’ve never had to deal with before. We can’t even understand them, so communicating our feelings to family members for help is extremely difficult.

Sometimes our feelings can be intense, but short; like the feeling of upset during a high school breakup or dispute between friends. These feelings are difficult to communicate, especially when we aren’t comfortable talking about these things with those close to us.

But even more difficult to communicate are the long-term, but less intense feelings. Anxiety and stress are not things that children ever feel, and their onset can be so gradual that we don’t even notice when we’re feeling them. Like something happening in the ‘background’ of our experience, we find it difficult to talk about these feelings because often we don’t even know we’re feeling them!

In either of these cases, it’s human nature that we cannot help but seek (consciously or unconsciously) a way to cope with these new feelings.

Good and Bad Coping

Some teens are fortunate enough to have people in their life they can feel comfortable being open with. Secure parents and strong friends are something that many of us take for granted, but unfortunately, are not guaranteed.

Addiction CopingTrusted confidants who not only will listen but provide valuable insight, lead an adolescent to the creation of strong and healthy mechanisms for coping with negative experiences that will last a lifetime. The solution to the weight on our back is for all of us to lift it together, and with a strong network, we learn how to share the load. Today, we are the one in need of help; but with it we grow into adults who will one day be able to return the favour to another adolescent in need.

When adolescents reach out to those they should be able to trust, but have their trust violated, they have no choice but to seek other mechanisms to ease their stress and anxiety. All adolescents make mistakes, but not all parents respond to these mistakes in the same way. When adolescents make mistakes and they are repeatedly punished for them; their understanding of their thoughts and actions is not improved, and they are taught that they cannot rely on their parents (or authority figures) for this understanding.

Without a guide to teach us how to understand ourselves and adapt our thoughts, beliefs, and behaviours to cope with these new feelings and experiences; we naturally find convenient ways to dull them.

Nearly all adolescents experiment with drugs and alcohol. Find one that does so without becoming dependent, and you’ll find they likely have secure attachments with trusted adults and authorities. Find those that do, and you’ll likely find their life is full of those that punish or reject them for being who they are and doing what they do.

Why We Cannot Stop

The adolescent brain is in a period of massive transformation.

Addictive SubstancesIt is during this period that we form habits and tendencies of thought, belief, and behaviour that will last us a lifetime.

This is why substance-use patterns that we establish in adolescence are so difficult to break. Whether general stress and anxiety or specific events that cause us pain; we turn to the mechanisms we established in youth to process and deal with them.

When we could openly speak with our parents, family, and friends and receive valuable insight in return; we find it literally effortless to do so again and again for the rest of our life. It’s so ingrained as a habit that, like breathing, we unconsciously process our negative experiences healthily.

The same is true of those who establish unhealthy mechanisms to process suffering. When we feel stress, anxiety, or are suffering through a particularly rough period; instead of reaching out to those we can rely on to help, we reach for our substance of choice. It becomes ‘the friend who helps’, but unfortunately it’s help is illusory and temporary.

What To Do When You Have A Problem

You cannot go back to adolescence to ‘retry’ the habit-forming process. Unfortunately, adults have lost much of their neuro-plasticity, and will not find it nearly as easy to re-establish their coping mechanisms such that they can get ‘the good ones’ this time.

Coping GroupBut this doesn’t mean they can’t at all.

Establishing new habits isn’t easy, but it’s far from impossible. When it comes to the habits we depend on to cope with negative experiences so that we can produce more good ones, the task starts with finding people in our life we know we can rely on to not only understand our situation but lend us valuable insight to coping with it.

Addicts have many friends, and these friends are perhaps more capable than anyone else at understanding an addicts situation, but problems arise when it comes to the advice they give to cope with problems. There is always the risk that addicts not currently in recovery will lead a friend unknowingly down the path they are seeking to leave. This is why one of the characteristic attributes of recovery is for an addict to (at least temporarily) isolate themselves from old social groups.

How To Find Those You Can Trust

Finding a trusted network of confidants that you can use to re-establish coping mechanisms in order to access a better future can seem difficult, but there are a plethora of available means and resources to help.

Trusting TherapistThe first is a recovery group. AA, NA, or any other recovery group help their members by surrounding them with people who intimately understand each other’s struggle. Lifting the weight of addiction together, each member finds bearing the load easier.

Another valuable resource is that of a skilled counsellor. Agencies like Capital Choice Counselling exist to help people connect with not only trusted but professional confidants who can lend extremely valuable and actionable insight to help ease the burden of recovery.

For more information on the resources available to help break old habits and establish new, healthy ones; get in touch with Capital Choice Counselling.

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Martin Rovers