A drug can be any substance that brings about physical or psychological changes. Drugs include alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, prescription medication, over-the-counter medication and illegal substances.
People tend to choose the substances that help them in some way, such as increasing pleasure, or decreasing emotional or physical pain. As alcohol and other drugs act directly on the central nervous system, they can seem to be predictable and effective ways to change how a person feels - at least in the short-term.
Substance use is often associated with important social rituals such as celebration, socialising, relaxation, healing, spirituality and commiseration. In some groups, clubs or communities, alcohol or other drug use can be seen as part of belonging to the group.
The choice of substance is influenced by the particular needs the person is trying to meet. Because different people may experience the same drug in different ways, it is hard to know why an individual has their particular pattern of substance use without getting to know more about what it means for them. The availability and cultural norms associated with different substances can also influence individual preferences.
With time, some people can find their alcohol or other drug use becomes problematic, because the harm or risk of harm associated with the substance use outweighs the benefits. Substance use may be a problem when you:
We often tend to think of the immediate harm associated with what drug is being used, how much and how often. But substance-related risks or harm can occur at any stage of drug use, including:
It can sometimes be hard to admit that your alcohol or other drug use has become a problem, especially if you still enjoy aspects of the drug use. Think about whether you would like to change your use in some way, such as:
It can be useful to ask yourself what are the helpful and not so helpful consequences of using the substance, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of cutting down or quitting. These questions are particularly useful in identifying what goals you would like to set for yourself in changing your substance use, and the challenges that you might experience in working toward achieving those goals.
It helps to identify what needs the substance use is meeting, and find alternative ways of meeting those needs.
While substance use may help to meet these needs in the short term, prolonged use of substances over time may be less effective in meeting these needs, as well as creating additional problems such as those noted previously. Just as it takes time to develop substance use habits, it sometimes takes a while before the alternative solutions feel natural and effective. Finding other ways to meet your needs can involve trial and error. Instead of looking for one solution that will replace the substance, it usually helps to replace the use with a variety of alternatives.
People often experience strong urges to use the substance when they first try to cut down or stop their use. The following suggestions have been found to be useful by some people to cope with cravings:
It is a good idea to plan alternative activities for the times you would normally use alcohol or other drugs, but you may also need to look at broader changes to your lifestyle or coping strategies.
Some people choose to cut down their use rather than stop immediately, either to regain control over their use or as a step toward stopping completely. It is advisable to seek medical advice prior to cutting down or ceasing use, as some people experience severe withdrawal symptoms. Seek medical assistance if you become unwell during a reduction in substance use.
The following strategies have been found to be useful in cutting down:
Reward your efforts to change, even if you don’t always meet your goals. Changing habits can be difficult, and being hard on yourself just tends to make it worse. Try not to rely on will-power alone - it's a hard way for anyone to change their habits. Try a range of strategies to cut down or quit. Each time you try to make changes, ask yourself what you could do differently next time and what you would still do the same. You may choose to get some help along the way. But the most important thing is to keep trying. It's worth it.
If you have tried making some of the changes suggested in this brochure and found it difficult, it could be time to speak with a psychologist who specialises in alcohol and other drug use issues. They can help you to work out where you are getting stuck in making changes and help you to develop strategies that are relevant to you.
If you are using substances to cope with other difficulties, psychologists can also help you to find other ways to deal with these problems. These problems might include grief and loss, abuse, trauma, relationship break ups, low self-esteem, or overwhelming emotions such as anger, anxiety or depression.
It can also be valuable to seek help when someone you care about has a problem with alcohol or other drug use, as it can be an emotionally difficult and draining experience. Psychologists can assist you to find ways to deal with challenging situations and look after yourself.
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