Substance use and your health: A fresh take for 2021


As we embark on 2021, many of us find ourselves evaluating our choices regarding mental health and wellness. What in typical times may be a whimsical notion to shift a behavior may feel now, in light of last year’s challenges, more like battling a tsunami, especially when it comes to reducing drinking and drug use. Insecurities of all kinds, excess time and easier online access: all are linked to the uptick in what the New York Times described as “frenzied” substance use in the United States last year. Research bears out what a quick look at Insta will tell you: People are drinking and smoking in response to multiple stressors as much as 55 percent more than they were at this time last year. The odds against quitting in such a climate, or even cutting down, may feel high. But before you throw your hands up and reach for another quarantini, consider that there may never be a perfect time to change, just as there is no magic amalgamation to guarantee success. A comprehensive exploration of your motivation and specific goals can be instrumental in achieving your greater health goals over time. 

You can start by figuring out what’s working about your drinking or drug use now. Yes, really. Most of us understand the health risks of using, but let’s be honest about why we do it. Many people use pot because it gives them a different perspective, or they enjoy drinking because it helps them relax. For others, using can be something to do in an otherwise boring day, especially now, when positive coping skills aren’t as accessible. You may decide that the pros of your use outweigh the cons and decide to tap the breaks on change, for now. Others may find that what drew them to use isn’t as pleasurable or effective as it once was. If we take stock of what’s keeping us in the game, we can assess our motivation for change more effectively, sharpen our focus, and ready ourselves for change when it’s time. 

Next up: What do you want to achieve by changing your use? Let’s go back to those health risks we’ve heard about. Sure, fear can be a good motivator—otherwise those graphic warnings wouldn’t be emblazoned on the sides of cigarette cartons. Getting clear on exactly what worries you about your use is good, but don’t linger too long in anxiety. Removing the threat of a potential negative outcome is not always sustainable as a health goal. If you’re not sure what this means for you, consider what you really want from reducing or quitting. Would you lose weight and have more energy? Get better sleep? Would quitting allow you to have more time, or money? Once you have a real sense of your goals, you are in a good spot to determine their value to you right now. Changing ingrained habits takes time and often uncomfortable sacrifices. It’s worth considering if you want to make cutting down a priority, because that’s what it would have to be, especially at the onset when you slog through having to do without what you liked about your use without yet getting the intrinsic benefits of quitting.

So, where does this leave us? We’ve begun a thorough assessment of our motivation and goals, and there are still so many questions: How much substance use is too much? Do I have to quit altogether, or can I cut down? What strategies work best? Despite our society’s culture of casual, habitual drinking, the bar for “moderate” use—according to the Centers for Disease Control—is fairly low: one alcoholic drink daily for women, or two for men. Less is known statistically about appropriate habitual marijuana use in regard to long-term health. Considering this, you may want to talk to your health care provider to get more information about your specific needs. Remember all the times they’ve told you about the benefits of diet, exercise and meditation? Well, those supports have proved to be helpful when you’re cutting down on substances, too. For people facing the more entrenched problem of substance abuse and addiction disorder, a professional evaluation and referrals to psychotherapy and recovery-centered support groups are more available now than ever due to increased online access. 

As we learn about potential changes on the global and domestic landscape in this early new year, many things still look the same as the last, and your relationship to your substance use may be no exception. You may not yet be sober, or you may start and stop quit attempts several times. You may throw away your Juul only to later fish it out of the trash, proving once again that your motivation for change is dynamic. So whether it’s today or tomorrow, it can grow to mimic 2021: unknown, perhaps only tentatively hopeful, but vast in its possibilities. 


Elizabeth O'Brien is a licensed clinical social worker living in Inverness Park.