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Why Does My Loved One Use Alcohol and Drugs?

This entry was posted in Substance Abuse on .

By Dr. Edward A. Selby, Ph.D.


So, the old saying goes: With a friend like you, who needs enemies? Well, this characterization applies extraordinarily well to alcohol, drugs, and other chemical substances. Many people use alcohol or drugs because the substances “help me feel better.” Although this experience may be true to some degree, whatever benefits people may obtain from using alcohol or drugs are drastically outweighed by the long-term consequences of habitual use. The hard part is getting someone caught up in addiction to recognize this fact.

Historically, in treating people with addictions most clinicians steered clear of discussing the positive aspects of substance use. In recent years, however, research has shown that discussing the perceived benefits of substance use is essential to overcoming addiction (Elliott & Carey, 2013). Along these lines, I was once speaking to an ex-smoker who hadn’t smoked in well over a decade, and he told me, “I miss it. Every day, I still get cravings for cigarettes and part of me always wants to start up again.” For the non-substance user, it may seem strange to “miss” using a substance, but many people who’ve used alcohol or other drugs have similar positive identifications with their preferred substances, even if those substances caused them serious harm. Some people even describe their drugs or alcohol as a sort of “friend” (Rúdólfsdóttir & Morgan, 2009). But returning to the quote at the start, with friends like drugs or alcohol, who needs enemies?

All of this raises the question, then, of why people would find anything positive about drug or alcohol use? The answer, as it turns out, is multifaceted and can be divided into three common themes: a) feeling good, b) enhanced socialization, and c) coping with emotional pain (Kuntsche et al., 2005). The important thing to keep in mind with these substance use motivations is that even if effects are seemingly positive or helpful in the short term, they are always harmful and destructive in the long term. Not to mention that there are certainly better ways than addictive behavior to address whatever underlying needs substances may fill in someone’s life.


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Alcohol and Drugs Feel Good, at First…

The primary problem with using drugs or alcohol is that doing so feels good, at least in the early stages of use. When considering early use, most people report that taking the drug resulted in brief feelings of euphoria, joy, delight, calmness, or other pleasant feelings that people commonly call the drug’s “high.” The reason for this positive emotional response is that all drugs, to a greater or lesser degree, activate positive emotion and reward circuits in the brain (Newman et al., 2021), and these are the same neural circuits that activate during other pleasant activities (e.g., eating good food, playing a game, connecting with a friend). However, with chronic drug use the brain’s response changes, and the positive feelings associated with a drug begin to have shorter durations or disappear altogether, often leaving the individual “chasing” their next high. In this way, drugs and alcohol can be likened to a friend who’s fun and exciting to be around but is also likely to abandon you in a tough situation. Or worse, while you’re having fun together, this friend is secretly taking everything important away from you.

When the euphoria of chronic drug use wears off, often a damaged life is all that remains. If chasing the high or good feelings that come with substance use is something that drives your drug or alcohol use, it’s important to recognize that those feelings will get harder and harder to find the longer you use, so it’s better to seek treatment now than let the drugs control and harm you.


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Drugs and Alcohol can Enhance Socialization, at First…

Another major motivation for substance use is the enhanced socialization that drugs and alcohol can provide (Geusens and Beullens, 2019). In other words, it’s easier and even potentially fun to make friends while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. This is because getting to know people, making friends, and building relationships is fun but also difficult sometimes, and alcohol and drugs make a superficial connection with others easier. For many, it’s a little easier to brave an unfamiliar social situation (e.g., a party) when you’ve had a few drinks or used cannabis than it is to approach strangers sober.

Drugs and alcohol make us feel good (temporarily) and they can make it easier to laugh and have a good time when getting to know new people. Some people even form friendship networks with other substance users, with their primary entertainment centered on substance use. However, the key here is to remember is that if social relationships involve drugs or alcohol use as a primary component, whatever social connections you have are likely to be superficial. In a sense, friends and drugs form a third wheel of sorts, where two people actually have a primary relationship with the drugs or alcohol, not with each other. When it’s just the two people then, with no drugs or alcohol, there is little or no relationship. This is why it’s common for many people recovering from drug or alcohol use to have to find new social networks in recovery. In fact, social networks built on substance use may not only be superficial, but they can even be harmful or promote relapse.

If socialization is a key reason for your substance use, a helpful part of substance recovery involves making new, helpful friends as a part of the recovery process – including others who’ve struggled with the same substance problems but worked to overcome them.


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Drugs and Alcohol can help us Cope with Distressing Emotions, at First…

Although listed last here, but certainly not least, the emotional coping effect that alcohol and drugs provide many people with is one of the biggest reasons that people can develop an addiction. The coping motivation for substance use refers to the fact that many people are experiencing extreme stressors and distressing emotional states in their daily lives, and they turn to alcohol or other drugs as a way of escaping from stress or negative feelings.

There are many reasons that using a substance will provide temporary relief from feelings of distress, but one major reason is that people have trouble managing upsetting thoughts and the substance effects provide a distraction from these upsetting thoughts (Selby, Anestis, & Joiner, 2008). Other psychological conditions can increase vulnerability to addiction, including depression symptoms, anxiety symptoms, and trauma symptoms. Depression tends to be the most common reason people report using drugs or alcohol to cope (Collins et al., 2018; Thompson et al., 2020), and part of the reason for this is that depression is an experience that lasts most of the day, most days.

Substance use can not only distract from depressing thoughts and feelings but can also provide a sense of relief from the nearly constant negative feelings. Likewise, anxiety symptoms and worry also promote addictive behavior where people are so stressed out by work or worries about money, family, or living situation that they use alcohol or drugs as a way of reducing physical tension and relieving stress (Bartoli et al., 2021). However, drugs and alcohol are not good long-term solutions to anxiety, since once the drug wears off the anxiety returns, then often compounded by further problems the substance use has caused.

Finally, difficulty coping with past traumas is another reason that many people use alcohol or drugs to cope with (Dixon et al., 2009), with the psychoactive effects of the substance helping someone distract from painful traumatic memories or flashbacks, or other symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder. However, even if drugs provide a brief sense of relief when hurting from trauma, ultimately drug use makes the trauma effects stronger and more painful over time. If coping with depression, anxiety, or trauma is a major reason for your alcohol or drug use, you should seriously consider seeking behavioral health care at an inpatient or outpatient program like those offered by BeWell Network, which often includes secondary treatments for mood, anxiety, and trauma disorders.


When people use drugs or alcohol, they are often pursuing ephemeral benefits such as temporarily feeling good, enhancing or acquiring new relationships, or using the effects of the drug to cope with upsetting situations and thoughts. Across all three motivations for substance use discussed here, it’s clear that while alcohol or drugs may provide initiable benefits or positive experience at first, with chronic use the substance can become harmful and even destructive. Ultimately, if you or someone you know is using drugs or alcohol, it’s important to recognize the motivations that drive addiction and help build the realization that whatever benefits may be obtained from substance use, they will eventually bring about substantial costs. So, it’s better to seek out treatment today, rather than continue to let a false friend destroy your life.


No Matter What the Reason your Loved One is using Alcohol and or Drugs we can Help! Call Now for a Free, No-Obligation, Confidential Consultation.

(866) 317-8395



Bartoli, F., Carretta, D., & Carrà, G. (2021). Comorbid Anxiety and Alcohol or Substance Use Disorders: An Overview. Textbook of Addiction Treatment, 1315-1325.
Collins, J. L., Thompson, K., Sherry, S. B., Glowacka, M., & Stewart, S. H. (2018). Drinking to cope with depression mediates the relationship between social avoidance and alcohol problems: A 3-wave, 18-month longitudinal study. Addictive Behaviors, 76, 182-187.
Dixon, L. J., Leen-Feldner, E. W., Ham, L. S., Feldner, M. T., & Lewis, S. F. (2009). Alcohol use motives among traumatic event-exposed, treatment-seeking adolescents: Associations with posttraumatic stress. Addictive Behaviors, 34(12), 1065-1068.
Elliott, J. C., & Carey, K. B. (2013). Pros and cons: Prospective predictors of marijuana use on a college campus. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 27(1), 230.
Geusens, F., & Beullens, K. (2019). A longitudinal examination of the moderating influence of peer and parental socialization on alcohol-related social media self-effects among late adolescents. Media Psychology, 22(2), 273-297.
Kuntsche, E., Knibbe, R., Gmel, G., & Engels, R. (2005). Why do young people drink? A review of drinking motives. Clinical Psychology Review, 25(7), 841-861.
Newman, A. H., Ku, T., Jordan, C. J., Bonifazi, A., & Xi, Z. X. (2021). New drugs, old targets: tweaking the dopamine system to treat psychostimulant use disorders. Annual Review of Pharmacology and Toxicology, 61, 609-628.
Rúdólfsdóttir, A. G., & Morgan, P. (2009). ‘Alcohol is my friend’: Young middle class women discuss their relationship with alcohol. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 19(6), 492-505.
Selby, E. A., Anestis, M. D., & Joiner, T. E. (2008). Understanding the relationship between emotional and behavioral dysregulation: Emotional cascades. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 46(5), 593-611.
Thompson, J. R., Creasy, S. L., Mair, C. F., & Burke, J. G. (2020). Drivers of opioid use in Appalachian Pennsylvania: Cross-cutting social and community-level factors. International Journal of Drug Policy, 78, 102706.

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