How to Stay Healthy When Someone You Love Is Addicted
Self-care is essential to finding ways to limit the unwanted influence of substance use in your life.
When someone you love is abusing substances like alcohol and/or other drugs, you are likely to focus solely on the damage the addiction is doing to that person. For example, your loved one may be experiencing decreased physical health and worsening mental health symptoms, employment issues, strained relationships, and finance troubles.
However, at the same time, you may be neglecting the stress that your loved one's addiction has on you. Chances are good your mental and physical health has been affected by substance use in at least one of the following ways:
- Sleepless nights worrying about the loved one.
- Poor or inconsistent relationships with people in your life, including the addicted person.
- Feelings of depression, sadness, and hopelessness.
- Feelings of anger and rage.
- More frequent physical health complaints.
- Reduced concentration and attention.
- Changes in weight from overeating or eating too little.
Having an addicted loved one is an enormous stressor. The more time and energy you put towards your loved one, the fewer resources you have left to address your needs. Because of this, you need to take careful steps to retain your physical and mental health.
Ways to Increase Self-Care
Self-care is essential to finding ways to limit the unwanted influence of substance use in your life. Self-care means actively using positive coping skills that improve your well being and better manage outside stress. Self-care can:
- Lower the negative impact of past or current stress (damage control).
- Lower the negative impact of future stress (prevention).
Self-care may initially seem selfish, but improving your own health will make you better able to help your loved one when needed. Additionally, it will increase your ability to be available for other people that need you.
People in caregiver roles that do not practice self-care can experience burnout and compassion fatigue. These occur when someone can no longer maintain a level of caring or interest in the loved one. People that experience burnout become cold, distant, and unable to care for themselves or others.
Steps to Improve Physical Health
Begin self-care by targeting the aspects of your physical health that are damaged by stress. By addressing these, you can return to a healthy level of functioning.
- Sleep. Without adequate sleep, you'll be unable to perform to your potential. By identifying your current sleep routines and making small modifications, you can gain more restful sleep.
- Diet. During periods of high stress, many people will seek foods that are more convenient than they are healthy. Spend time during the day considering what you have been eating and what you would like to eat in the future. By scheduling and planning meals, you will be more likely to eat helpful foods. Avoid foods and drinks that are high in sugar, caffeine, and carbohydrates, as these will trigger unwanted changes to blood sugar, energy levels, and mood.
- Exercise. Physical activity is a fantastic way to improve your health while lowering your stress. Taking short walks several times per week can improve your stress levels by separating yourself from the usual environment and allowing a break from unwanted thoughts. Exercise is also a great way to gain clarity of mind; many people report doing their best thinking during their workout.
By making one small change you're likely to start a continuum of positive changes, because all of the above are interconnected. By working to improve sleep, diet and exercise will also improve.
Steps to Improve Mental Health
Taking care of your mental health is equally as important as taking care of your physical health. To stay mentally healthy when you're dealing with the stresses of a loved one struggling with addiction:
- Establish expectations. Expectations serve as a filter for information. High expectations may lead to disappointment, and low expectations will trigger feelings of sadness. Working to create realistic expectations of your loved one can be a valuable but challenging process. It does not change their behavior, only your perception of their behavior.
- Practicing relaxation. Stress, tension, and anxiety are common among both addicts and those who love them. To combat these feelings, practice relaxation skills, such as deep breathing, guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, and others. Using yoga or meditation can add a sense of peace and calm to your life and can actually aid your physical health as well.
- Build boundaries. Improving your communication skills will be essential in maintaining your mental health while your loved one is addicted. Forming strong boundaries is part of this process. Someone living with addiction may try to manipulate you to meet his needs. Communicating your clear boundaries to them early will limit the guilt and sadness you feel when refusing their demands.
- Seek pleasure. Even the best self-care coping skills cannot eliminate all negatives. Using resources to have fun will help offset the negatives.
Professional/ Community Treatment Options
Sometimes the stress of loving someone who is abusing drugs is too overwhelming to deal with on your own. Fortunately, there is help available for families and loved ones of people struggling with a substance use disorder:
Therapy. Seeking therapy from a mental health professional can help guide you toward effective self-care techniques and teach you new coping skills tailored to your needs and abilities. A therapist may work with you on issues like communication and distress tolerance while offering support and validation. The therapist can train you to be more aware of the role you play in addiction and target behaviors to modify. Therapy can be individual therapy, group therapy, or a combination of each.
Support groups. This option may be an appropriate addition to professional treatment or completed independently. Most support groups are maintained and led by group members rather than a professional. AlAnon is a type of support group designed for family members of addicts that is grounded in the 12-step philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous. Support groups are helpful for many; however, it's important to research the group before you attend, as their philosophies may not mesh with your beliefs.
Behaviors to Avoid
There is a lot you can do to improve your health, but they will not amount to much if you continue engaging in negative behaviors that have poor outcomes with your loved one. By avoiding certain behaviors, you can improve your health and well-being. Consider avoiding:
- Taking too much responsibility. People that are struggling to stay healthy when a loved one is addicted to a substance may find themselves taking too much responsibility for the actions of the addict. You cannot control the actions of your loved one. It is healthy to realize that you are not responsible for that person.
- Enabling. Despite your good intentions, you may unknowingly be supporting addiction by enabling. Enabling is the act of reducing or eliminating consequences of unwanted or unhealthy behaviors for others in your life. Enabling actually encourages the unwanted behaviors to continue since there are reduced repercussions. Enabling results in long-term problems for you and your loved one.
- Being inconsistent. Consistency is needed in all aspects of life, especially when you are under stress from addiction. Being inconsistent with your coping skills will prevent your desired outcomes from being realized. Being inconsistent with your loved one will blur the boundaries and expectations you have of them.
- Building resentment. People make poorer decisions when they are angry. Emotions take over and you will be less objective and rational. Resenting your loved one will only feed other unwanted feelings like guilt and sadness regarding the situation. Working towards accepting the situation and finding solutions can help.
Depending on your situation, your health, and the relationships you have, you may consider ending the relationship with your addicted loved one. This is a difficult decision to make that should be reserved for rare occasions when it's necessary. Consider ending the relationship if:
- Measures to limit the relationship or establish appropriate boundaries have been unsuccessful.
- You cannot maintain your physical or mental health.
- You are unable or unwilling to behave in ways that promote recovery.
- You feel the need to punish or abuse the loved one.
- Your loved one has been continuously physically or emotionally abuse to you or others in the home.
Consultation with experts and trusted supports is advisable when making a decision like this.
- National Caregiver Training Program Caregiver Workbook. (n.d.). Retrieved November 6, 2015, from http://www.caregiver.va.gov/pdfs/Caregiver_Workbook_V3_Module_1.pdf
- Caregiver Stress and Burnout. (n.d.). Retrieved November 6, 2015, from http://www.helpguide.org/articles/stress/caregiving-stress-and-burnout.htm