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Are you drinking alcohol to cope?

Having a few pints or a glass of wine after a stressful day isn’t necessarily a problem. It’s when we start drinking alcohol frequently to cope with difficult emotions like sadness or shame or using it to ‘medicate away’ mental health symptoms like anxiety or depression that it becomes problematic. Here’s how to spot the signs that you may be using alcohol as a coping mechanism and how to get help.

What are your coping mechanisms?

All of us have coping mechanisms which help us manage stress or other kinds of emotional discomfort. They can be conscious strategies that we intentionally choose, or unconscious reactions we adopt without really realising we’re doing it. For example, a conscious coping mechanism might be deciding to go for a run after a stressful day at work. You know after you’ve sweated it out, you always feel better. A more unconscious choice would be reaching for the bottle of wine after a hard day out of habit. You intend to have a glass, but before you know it, the bottle is empty.

Why alcohol is a popular coping mechanism

Alcohol is a popular coping mechanism as having a few drinks can initially make you feel good, more relaxed, and confident. It can also numb difficult emotions. And let’s face it, alcohol is a socially acceptable way to unwind and fend off the stressors of life. People of all ages and from all walks of life drink alcohol for these very reasons. But for those whose drinking is problematic, there are some pretty strong links to severe depression and PTSD. Researchers at the University of Valenica found that women are more likely to use alcohol to cope with psychological distress, and there were high rates of comorbid depression found in those with an alcohol use disorder.

Are you drinking alcohol to cope?

Here are the signs that drinking alcohol may have become a coping mechanism for you:

  •  The first thing you do when you experience a difficult emotion is have a drink.
  • Your drinking is harming your relationships.
  • You are drinking in secret.
  • You are calling in sick from work or turning up with a hangover.
  • You can drink much more these days without feeling the effects.
  • Your drinking causes you to either black out or be unable to remember things, for example, not remembering how you got home after a night out.
  • You feel irritated or on edge if you can’t have a drink.

The problem with excessive drinking

If drinking has become your way to cope, the chances are, it’s problematic. Excessive drinking can lead to addiction, problems at home and at work, and health problems. Also, if you’re using alcohol to cope without delving into what the underlying issues are, your drinking and whatever you’re drinking to deal with or avoid will only get worse.

How to stop using alcohol as a way to cope

If you’re drinking alcohol to cope with life’s stresses, difficult emotions, or mental health symptoms, the first step to breaking the habit is to find other strategies that will help. This could be:

  • Reaching out to a friend, family member, or trusted colleague-we all need someone to lean on when things get difficult.
  • Learning how to be mindful-mindfulness can help you learn to be in the moment and feel and notice your feelings and emotions without judgement. Once you can acknowledge your feelings and just be with them, you reduce their intensity and their ability to cause distress.
  • Taking some exercise-It’s well known that exercise can help reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression. When you feel like reaching for that glass of wine when things get tough, try putting on your trainers and getting out for a walk or run instead.
  • Finding ways to unwind and cope which don’t involve alcohol-Go out for a walk in nature, watch a film with the family, have a game night, and one of our favourites, volunteer. Helping someone else will boost your self-esteem and give you a feeling of satisfaction that you might have only got from alcohol before.

When to seek help for alcohol use

If you recognised most of the signs that you’re using alcohol as a coping mechanism, it’s a good idea to get some professional support if you aren’t already. The clinicians at Talk Works are experienced in helping people with addictions and a range of mental health problems, as well as being able to offer specialist and compassionate support if you’re going through/have been through a distressing life event.

Find out more about our therapy services and how to get help here.

Source (research):


Villanueva-Blasco, V. J., J, M. M., Villanueva-Silvestre, V., & Vázquez-Martínez, A. (2022). Relationship Between Depression and Risky Alcohol Consumption in Women: the Mediating Role of Coping Styles and Age. International journal of mental health and addiction, 1–18. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11469-022-00931-w