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Grand Futures: Looking at coping mechanisms, substance use

Lance Phipps and Amber DeLay
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

What are coping mechanisms, and how do they relate to substance use and misuse? According to the American Addiction Centers, coping mechanisms are habits a person forms over time that enable them to cope with feelings of stress.

There can be stressors in all areas of our lives and finding a way to process and relieve the stress is essential. Coping mechanisms are the impulses developed to respond to stress.

Coping mechanisms can range from healthy to unhealthy, generally gauged by whether those coping mechanism produce positive or negative health and behavior outcomes.



A cycle can occur when individuals turn towards substance use to cope with feelings of stress. Using substances as the default coping strategy creates a higher risk for developing a substance use disorder (SUD).

The effects of alcohol and drugs do not actually alleviate stress, they just distract the mind and body temporarily. Once the effects wear off the stress is still present, which can result in continued cravings to use substances.



The pandemic developed multiple stressors across many aspects of life; financial security, social and community context, access to education and access to health care.

Having several stressors heightened makes the need for healthy outlets and coping strategies even more important, but access to many of these were (and still are, in some cases) lacking.

This can be challenging for all individuals, and poses additional risks for individuals who heavily use substances or who have a SUD.

The Commonwealth Fund published in a March 25, 2021 web article, “total overdose deaths spiked to record levels in March 2020.” Unfortunately, the state of Colorado contributed to the rise in fatal overdose deaths as The Denver Post mentions in an article published on May 30, 2021, “fatal drug overdoses in Colorado surged 59% in 2020.”

It is believed that the pandemic played an indirect role in the increase in overdose deaths, while a lethal synthetic opioid, fentanyl, made its way into the opioid drug scene.

Beyond the pandemic, there will always be change and new stressors that develop in life. Having a diverse set of healthy coping mechanism to navigate life will build resilience and can help prevent individuals from substance misuse, SUD, and lower risk of overdose.

The Amherst College proposed this list of stress relief strategies that anyone can start to use in their daily life immediately, most of them are free and accessible or can be made accessible:

• Talk to someone: Reach out to a friend, family member, advisor, or a counselor for support.

• Play: Engage in an activity just for fun, this can be different for everyone; but playing games, drawing, coloring, and playing with pets are some suggestions.

• Write: Write down stressful thoughts.

• Change the scenery: Take a walk in nature, explore a new part of town, or get out of town all together.

• Try a relaxation strategy: Mindfulness, yoga, or a massage.

• Move your body: Get active by incorporating more exercise into your daily life by doing exercise you truly enjoy.

Lance Phipps is a service member with AmeriCorps BHEC hosted by Grand Futures Prevention Coalition and Amber DeLay is executive director of Grand Futures.


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