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Alcohol and Mental Health

Coping Mechanisms: A Toolkit for the Mind

December 14, 2023
11 min read
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Written by
Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
December 14, 2023
11 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
December 14, 2023
11 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
December 14, 2023
11 min read
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Reframe Content Team
December 14, 2023
11 min read

Life throws all kinds of problems at us, but our brain has incredible abilities to handle stress, adversity, and change by developing various coping skills. The key lies in using the right ones. Otherwise, in the words of Virginia Satie, “Problems are not the problem; coping is the problem.” 

What’s the difference between problematic coping strategies and ones that can really improve our life? And how does drinking fit into the picture when it comes to using alcohol to cope? Let’s explore these topics and talk about some coping mechanisms for alcoholics that can serve as safer alternatives.

Habits and the Brain

Coping skills are essentially habits — repeated behaviors that happen in response to stressful situations. If we’ve been reacting to a particular set of circumstances in the same way for a long time, our brain goes on autopilot and our response becomes automatic.

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Habits form through neuroplasticity: our brains are adaptable. Contrary to old ideas that adult brains are unchanging, they can actually transform and develop all through our lives. Neuroplasticity constantly works to help us learn, adapt, and, crucially, cope.

How does this happen? Our brain is made of neurons (billions of them!) and these neurons make connections with each other. When we have new experiences or learn something new, our neurons form new connections, actually changing our brain structure — this is the beauty of neuroplasticity.

When Coping Skills Go Awry 

The problem is, when the brain latches on to certain coping mechanisms — including those that make us feel better in the short term but spell trouble later on — the resulting habit can be very hard to break. For example, alcohol affects the brain's reward system, an intricate network of neurons that releases “feel-good” chemicals like dopamine when we do something pleasurable. Drinking alcohol triggers a flood of these chemicals, which creates an initial feeling of euphoria.

However, this relief is only temporary. Over time, the brain adjusts to these regular chemical baths by reducing its own production of dopamine. When alcohol is removed from the equation, the brain is left in a deficit. This lack of pleasure chemical can lead to withdrawal symptoms (such as anxiety, depression, or intense cravings for a drink) while leaving the original problem we were seeking relief from unresolved.

As a result, we often find ourselves coping with alcohol-related problems rather than with the original reason that led us to use drinking to cope in the first place. At this point, what started out as a coping mechanism takes on a life of its own. Rather than alleviating the original source of stress, the habit itself becomes the problem — we are now “coping” with the maladaptive coping mechanism itself.

Switching Strategies

Thankfully, the same thing that makes it easy for bad habits to form also makes learning healthy coping skills possible.

As we practice different coping techniques, we create new neural pathways, which become stronger with use. Our brain changes physically as we develop these skills, and the more we practice them, the easier they become.

The Coping Spectrum

Helpful coping strategies generally fall into two categories: problem-focused and emotion-focused. Problem-focused coping is all about tackling the source of the stress head-on — like delegating tasks to manage a heavy workload. 

Emotion-focused coping, on the other hand, involves managing the emotional fallout from a stressful situation. This could mean taking a bubble bath after a hard day or meditating to find our inner peace.

Neither type of coping strategy is “better” than the other. A 2001 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that the most effective coping strategies involve a mix of both. However, since emotional coping strategies act as a multipurpose toolkit we can take with us as we face all kinds of different challenges, it makes sense to explore them in more detail.

Coping Mechanisms: A Toolkit for the Mind

Mindfulness and Meditation

One tried and tested emotion-focused coping method is mindfulness. Mindfulness is all about being present in the moment, aware of our thoughts, feelings, and surroundings.

Many studies have shown that mindfulness can help regulate our emotions, reducing stress and improving our overall mental well-being. When we practice mindfulness, we're encouraging our brains to form new, resilient neural pathways.

Mindfulness and meditation have also been studied extensively for their potential to help us manage stress, anxiety, and cravings. Practicing staying present and fully engaged with whatever we're doing at the moment can help us better understand our urges and stressors, recognizing them as temporary sensations rather than urgent needs that must be satisfied. This is why taking time each day to practice mindfulness or meditation can be a crucial part of our coping skill toolkit.

Physical Exercise

Another great emotional coping strategy is exercise. We all know that staying active is good for our physical health — but it's also a powerful coping tool. Physical activity releases endorphins, our body's natural mood lifters, and helps regulate stress hormones such as cortisol.

In fact, according to a 2013 review in the journal Clinical Psychology Review, regular physical activity can be as effective as medication or cognitive therapies in treating depression and anxiety. So, why not take a walk, try out a new dance class, or even just do some stretching at home? Our brain will thank us for it!

"Healthy body, healthy mind” isn’t just a saying: there's scientific truth behind it. Regular physical exercise has numerous benefits — boosting mood, reducing stress, and improving sleep — all of which help us manage cravings and maintain a healthy lifestyle. The endorphins (natural mood lifters) released during exercise help counterbalance the reduced dopamine production in our brains, making cravings less intense.

Cognitive-Behavioral Coping Skills

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychological treatment scientifically proven to help people understand and change thought patterns that lead to harmful actions, like excessive drinking. CBT works by helping us identify situations where you're likely to drink, develop strategies to avoid these triggers, and cope more effectively with stressors.

Coping skills within the CBT framework are both physical and mental. Physical methods include diaphragmatic breathing and progressive muscle relaxation, addressing the bodily symptoms of stress. Mental CBT coping skills include cognitive restructuring (reframing thoughts), behavioral activation, and setting specific goals to structure your day, all of which give us more control over our life before stressful circumstances arise.

Social Support and Connection

Finally, never underestimate the power of a supportive community. Support can come in many forms: a dedicated group, a supportive friend or family member, a professional counselor or therapist, or even an online community such as the Reframe forum. When the seas get rough, it's helpful to have a crew we can lean on.

Charting a Course for Success

Each person's journey is unique, with different starting points, challenges, and goals. A voyage guided by science-based coping strategies can increase our chances of successfully navigating the waters.

Embracing mindfulness and meditation, regular exercise, cognitive-behavioral skills, and social connection as integral parts of our life might feel challenging at first. But every great journey starts with a single step! Be patient with yourself, celebrate your victories —  matter how small! — and keep moving forward. 

With the right tools and a supportive community, you're better equipped than you might think. We all have the power to improve our coping skills and navigate life more effectively!

Build Your Coping Toolkit With Reframe

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol. 

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today!

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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