Monday Medical: Preventing substance abuse

Susan Cunningham
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

Editor’s Note: This is part three of a three-part series on substance abuse. Part one covered substance abuse basics, and part two covered steps to recovery.

When it comes to preventing substance abuse, it helps to know a little about how the brain works.

“The brain is an amazingly protective set of components and glands that try to work together to help us orient toward the good stuff in life, while protecting us from danger and distress,” said Amy Goodwin, a licensed professional counselor and behavioral health counselor at UCHealth Behavioral Health Clinic in Steamboat Springs.

But, modern society has manipulated the brain’s response to those good things, tricking the brain into rewarding not-so-helpful behaviors such as scrolling on screens, gambling, eating sugar and abusing substances.

“We are like Jack Sparrow in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ with a compass that could direct us to what we want most in the world, but it doesn’t work because of all the interference,” Goodwin said. “I find it tragic that we live in a world that doesn’t teach us how our brain works, the meaning of our emotions and how to use them to problem-solve.”

Stop before it starts

To prevent substance abuse, it’s important to first realize that any regular ingestion of a psychoactive substance such as alcohol, nicotine, marijuana or other drugs can cause a physical dependence on the substance.

Goodwin recommends learning to manage stress and distress without substances, and also understanding what moderation is. For alcohol, that’s no more than four standard alcoholic beverages in 24 hours and no more than 14 a week for men, and no more than three in 24 hours or seven in a week for women.

Develop strong coping strategies

In biological terms, stress is anything that activates the “fight or flight” response generated by our sympathetic nervous system. To manage stress, we must activate the parasympathetic or recovery nervous system.

Monday Medical Substance Abuse Series

• Slow down: Activities such as yoga, pilates, mindfulness, meditation and Tai Chi can all help calm the nervous system by helping to slow breathing and heart rate.

• Exercise: Walking the dog or hitting the gym pays dividends to physical and mental health. “Exercise helps rid our body of stress hormones and increases the production of positive chemicals in our brain, thus allowing us to ‘reset’ our central nervous system,” Goodwin said.

• Communicate: Learning how to communicate well with friends and loved ones can reduce the stress that comes with relational conflict.

• Think intentionally: Practice being mindful of the types of thoughts you’re allowing. “If we are always thinking about problems that are not actually ours to solve, then the brain never gets a break from the stress of problem awareness,” Goodwin said.

• Connect with others: Though it was especially challenging during the pandemic, connecting with others is critical as it helps build joy and provides an outlet in which you feel understood.

• Eat healthfully: Choose whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean meats and dairy products instead of processed foods.

“Sugar, lack of nutrients and toxic chemicals in food can cause a stress response, just like the news can,” Goodwin said.

• Embrace creativity: “Dance, make music, play, create, explore, love,” Goodwin said. “There are a lot of ways to remind your brain and yourself that your life is more than just a series of problems to be managed.”

• Prioritize self-care: Pay attention to what you need and don’t hesitate to take time for it, whether that’s an acupuncture or massage session, or a relaxing vacation.

• Handle one thing at a time: “Strategies associated with mindfulness practices can teach us how to slow our mind so we can isolate and direct our attention to one stressor and one response at a time,” Goodwin said.

But don’t hesitate to work on several coping strategies at once. 

“Just as we have multiple stressors accumulating to create our current stress experience, it may take multiple relaxation activities to rebalance us,” Goodwin said. “If one strategy isn’t working by itself, feel free to pile them on.”

Susan Cunningham writes for UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at

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