Mental health: How to build healthy coping mechanisms to overcome addiction

Quick fixes are used to cope with stress, anxiety and the daily grind

By Ghenwa Yehia

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Published: Thu 13 Jun 2024, 8:47 PM

Chris Ball, managing partner at Dubai-based financial advisory, has had a complex relationship with alcohol. When he moved to Dubai at 25 as a young entrepreneur and as a new father to twins, the fast-paced lifestyle filled with nightly events and parties quickly became the norm.

“In the UK, I might’ve gone out once or twice a week. But here it was a lot more and alcohol was always a huge part of socialising,” he said.

“Drinking was a great way to de-stress because life was stressful. I was working at leading wealth management companies in a new country. My wife and I were young, unprepared and we didn’t have a family support network to help out with the kids.”

Alcohol and caffeine are quick fixes to cope with stress, anxiety and the daily grind. While these substances are commonly used, their effects on mental health extend beyond addiction, influencing even those who use them casually as coping mechanisms.

“There are two ways to think about substance use: there is substance abuse and substance dependence, or addiction,” explained Amy Glover, clinical psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia in Dubai. “Often times people will be abusing a substance, but they do not meet the criteria for addiction. Whether you are addicted or not, substances impact our bodies, cognition, and emotions.”

Alcohol is seen as a social lubricant or a way to unwind after a long day. But it is actually a depressant that disrupts neurotransmitters and can impact your mood, especially with long-term and excessive use. It can make you more prone to low mood, fatigue and lethargy. It can increase the risk of impulsive behaviour. Heavy and sustained alcohol use over time can affect the quality of your sleep, diet and disrupt dopamine levels. These drops are often felt emotionally during hangovers or in the days or periods after consumption, making you feel more sad or anxious.

Caffeine is a stimulant that boosts alertness and productivity. It engages the nervous system, making you more alert and awake. This stimulation can also aggravate symptoms of anxiety, such as a racing heart, restlessness, dizziness and excessive worry. It can make it more difficult to sleep and slow down the mind, leading to more ruminating thoughts.

Consumption of both can minimise or intensify emotions, leading to a change in behaviour and increased feelings of anxiety or guilt, which negatively affect mental health.

“A lot of factors, such as age, genetics, and environment affect whether or not someone becomes addicted to alcohol or caffeine,” explained Glover. “But in general, substance use and abuse can initiate the onset of anxiety and depression, or disorders, such as psychosis or panic disorders.”

Ball soon realised how negatively his drinking was affecting different areas of his life. His regular, though not excessive, drinking was making him feel worse.

“I was drinking mainly for productivity, but I ended up being less productive,” he said. “My anxiety increased; my relationships with people worsened. It took a toll on my mental health.”

Recognising the warning signs that substance use is becoming problematic is crucial. These signs include impact on sleep, daily routines, and performance in relationships or work.

“Self-awareness plays a significant role in recognising when substance use is no longer healthy,” said Glover. “Through self-awareness, individuals can reflect on their behaviours, emotions, and coping strategies, enabling them to identify patterns of substance use and its impact on their mental health.”

Ball quit drinking for a year and a half in 2019. He now drinks mindfully and on occasion. “I really valued my time abstaining. It helped me develop healthier habits to cope with stress. Working out and having fitness goals has been a huge positive coping strategy that has replaced regular drinking, for example.”

With a workforce of over 250 people across offices in the UAE, UK, USA, South Africa, Australia and soon, India, at Hoxton Capital Management, Ball is committed to ensuring that his teams have access to well-being and mental health support through employee programmes and health insurance benefits.

“Being an expat is a thrilling experience and also a really scary one,” he said. “Sometimes, new expats’ only form of support to cope with all the changes in their life comes from the people and programmes at their workplace. I want to make sure that our employees have access to learn about healthy coping strategies, and not turn to substances to manage their mental health.”

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