Misuse of Alcohol to Manage Stress

Under stressful circumstances many people turn to alcohol to help manage stress.  Alcoholic drinks are often consumed to “take off the edge” or “relax” after a long, hard day of work.  While this may seem to help in the moment, in reality it pushes the emotions one is experiencing below consciousness or awareness.  It is difficult to resolve emotion that has been repressed and can build up if the pattern of repression is habitual.  Repeated alcohol consumption to manage stress can lead to addiction, which can have severe consequences affecting every area of one’s life.

Those who are experiencing personal trauma and/or secondary trauma through their work, family relationships or socially may be especially vulnerable to misuse of alcohol in order to mask painful emotions.  The moments when an individual most feels like they need a drink are often the worst time for a drink.

It is a good practice to be mindful when you feel the urge to have a drink.  Good questions to ask yourself are “why do I feel the need to drink right now?” and “what activity could I engage in that would be better for my health?”  Examples of healthy alternatives can include exercise, mindfulness meditation, breathwork, taking a relaxing bath, journaling, or seeking support.

The ability to meet yourself where you are, regardless of how difficult it may seem in the moment, is a skill worth mastering.  If you don’t like where you are, it is a good indication that you need to do something different, nurture yourself and/or perhaps seek some support or assistance to work through the emotions brought on by stress.  This can be done by talking with a trusted friend, co-worker, life coach, support group or therapist.  More involved help may be necessary if you suspect an alcohol addiction.

I was facilitating a Compassion Stress Management course for professional caregivers last year and had a participant walk out in the middle of the class.  A few days later I received an email from this individual that something I said had inspired her to leave and find an Alcoholics Anonymous group that was meeting in that city (she was from out of town) immediately.  This was an excellent example of self-awareness, courage and doing what she found necessary to cultivate a healthier, addiction free lifestyle.

A link to the article “Workplace Stress as a Trigger for Addiction” has been included http://stepstorecovery.com/workplace-stress-addiction/  for those who are interested in reading about the link between stressful work environment and the use of drugs and alcohol to cope.  Additionally, it provides alternatives available to promote a healthy lifestyle.


Self-Care Movement

What we need is a self-care movement in which each person loves, cares and takes responsibility for him/herself.  By acknowledging and responding to our needs, we have more energy and compassion for those we serve.  As professional caregivers we have the influence to greatly impact our clients/patients by teaching and modeling effective self-care.  We have the opportunity to create and lead a self-care movement, but in order to do so we must be proficient with our personal self-care and “walk our talk”.  It begins right here, within ourselves and our professions.

Several researchers of secondary trauma, related to caregiving professionals, have identified self-care as an issue that should be addressed within multiple levels.  This is important because professional caregivers are at high risk of experiencing stress injuries due to the intense nature of their work and exposure to secondary trauma.  Self-care is viewed as the responsibility of the individual, of educators in the academic setting, and at the professional level within the workplace (Gokhan, Meehan & Peters, 2010;  Newell & Macneil, 2010; Radey & Figley, 2007).

The individual can address self-care by holding him/herself to a high standard of self-care practice.  By maintaining a commitment to excellent self-care habits, the caregiver is more likely to maintain balance and resiliency during times of occupational stress.  It is helpful to design a self-care plan that has specific intentions regarding self-care methods and frequency of application.  The individual caregiver can seek out self-care resources and tools through research, training workshops, on-line training and by working with qualified professionals.  Additionally, working toward wholeness within ourselves by healing unresolved issues and traumas can be freeing.

Self-care can be addressed within academia by including stress management and self-care courses into the university’s curriculum.  An ideal time to offer such courses is when students are doing on-the-job practicums and internships.  Creating awareness regarding secondary trauma and teaching effective stress management tools before entering into the caregiving professions could better prepare students to handle the intensity of their work and result in career longevity.

Organizations can address self-care by providing their employees with stress management/self-care training and continuing education.  Wellness programs are an excellent way to support employees with their self-care needs.  Additionally the organization can reinforce professional self-care by encouraging employees to take lunch breaks, providing manageable workloads and reasonable work hours, ensuring adequate supervision and training, and by cultivating a positive environment that results in employee satisfaction.

By addressing self-care within multiple levels caregivers are more likely to experience satisfaction and flourishing within their work.  When the caregiver is feeling optimal he/she can provide superior client/patient care.  From this place the caregiver can positively impact the client/patient by modeling and teaching effective self-care.  This is an opportunity to create much needed change within our society.  As Ghandi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”


Gokhan, N., Meehan, E., & Peters, K., (2010).  The value of mindfulness-based methods in teaching at a clinical field placement.  Psychological Reports, 106(2), 455-466.

Newell, J., & MacNeil, G., (2010).  Professional burnout, vicarious trauma, secondary traumatic stress, and compassion fatigue:  a review of theoretical terms, risk factors, and preventative methods for clinicians and researchers.  Practices in Mental Health, 6(2), 57-68.

Radey, M. & Figley, C., (2007).  The social psychology of compassion.  Clinical Social Work Journal, 35(1), 207-214.



Secondary Trauma and Self-Care

Maintaining high levels of compassion and empathy required by caregiving professionals can be difficult, given the intensity and high demands of the work.  Professional caregivers, including but not limited to:  mental health professionals, medical practitioners, first responders and animal caregivers are exposed to the traumas of the clients they serve.  This indirect exposure to graphic material can be through hearing the stories told by clients/patients or by assisting them during or immediately following a trauma, such as during a life threatening emergency or in the emergency room, for example.

Research has been done to verify that caregivers are at high risk of experiencing symptoms of secondary trauma.  Professional caregivers studied include, but are not limited to:  social workers, child welfare workers, substance abuse counselors, domestic/sexual violence social workers, emergency room nurses, hospice nurses, juvenile justice education workers, firefighters and chaplains working following the events of 9/11 in New York City.

Self-Care has been identified, through research, as the greatest prevention of experiencing the negative effects of secondary trauma.  It is the intention of Self-Care Specialists to provide progressive training for professional caregivers that creates awareness regarding secondary trauma injuries and to teach effective stress management tools as prevention.  It is important for professional caregivers to take optimal care of themselves in order to maintain resiliency and the ability to provide superior service to those clients who trust and rely upon us to assist with their needs.