(The Full Text are from when EOV’s in-person workshops were developed.)

“The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.” – Samuel Johnson

Transformation is much more than using skills, resources and technology. It’s all about habits of mind.” – Malcolm Gladwell

“The best cure for one’s bad tendencies is to see them in action in another person.” ― Alain de Botton

We’ve all done a bit of toxic coping, even if it’s not clear immediately what that phrase means. Have you ever dealt with a stressful situation by knocking back a few more coffees or something stronger? Or taking painkillers to block out chronic pain? That’s what toxic coping is – taking a possibly unhealthy short term measure to deal with stress, even if it isn’t going to help the long term case. Often, our lifestyles give us little choice than to just deal with the short term and get on with things. When this goes beyond a single instance though, you run the risk of developing a toxic coping habit.

It’s easy to hear the dissonance and discordance in music. It really grates on your nerves. When we develop toxic coping habits, we’re essentially creating that kind of discordance within ourselves. So imagine the orchestra of your body being hungover, grumpy and out of tune, and being asked to pop some painkillers and go put on a show. Pulling a stunt like that might work once or twice, but doing it on a sustained basis is pushing your luck. Humans have always indulged in a bit of escapism to push away what they don’t want to look at. So we deal with stress by grabbing too many drinks, or overeating. It doesn’t make the source of the stress go away, and it probably won’t feel great the next morning, but it takes the edge off the immediate moment. What we’d like to share with you is some ways in which toxic coping habits can be replaced by healthy habits or behaviour that addresses the improvement of your health.

As always, let’s reach back to see where we’ve come as human beings over the centuries. Humans have had some form of alcohol for a long time, but it was painstaking to make, and certainly not available as widely and in such variety as any neighbourhood liquor store. We had mind-altering substances too, but these were often in the hands of a few people who gathered and experimented with substances, like shamans and healers. So in some ways, our contemporary brains are just unable to deal with the availability of drugs and alcohol we have now. Of course, there is also the world’s most widely available psychoactive drug: coffee. Renowned writer and journalist Michael Pollan argues that coffee is not just a stimulant we’re overdependent on, it has actually had a major role in shaping the modern world as we know it. There are many beneficial things about coffee, but beyond a point, it has the effect of making you more stressed. Researchers at UCLA conducted a study of the effect of caffeine on stress levels with 200 participants. Some of them were given caffeine tablets in lieu of drinking coffee, while others (unbeknownst to them) were given a placebo pill.  The participants who received the caffeine pill reported feeling more stressed and anxious as opposed to the placebo medication. So if you’re reaching for your fifth cup of coffee as a psychological crutch to make you feel better, you should know that from a physiological point of view, you’re only making yourself feel worse.

The same goes for medication – some of the easily available over the counter sleeping pills for example, have an antihistamine as their active ingredient – the same thing that you would take if you had an allergic reaction because it sedates you. A lot of people use them to sleep on a regular basis. While they might have the effect of making you drowsy, they actually interfere with the quality and architecture of your sleep. So it leaves many people with the same effects that a hangover does, and you wake up feeling groggy. Importantly, medicines like these are not meant to help you deal with consistent lack of sleep, or insomnia. They are just another example of a very short term fix to something that should be dealt with more holistically.  And just to drive the point home – it’s the same with alcohol. Whether it’s the tradition of a ‘nightcap’, or the images we see in movies of people falling asleep nursing a drink, the truth is actually that alcohol disrupts your sleep architecture. So it might knock you out, but it also knocks out the quality of your sleep. And done repeatedly, it will worsen into chronic stress.

So now that we’re very clear that we often fool ourselves with our coping mechanisms, we ask that you try re-programming your brain towards positive habits every time you try to deal with stress.

In the case of coffee, for example, we’d like you to actually reduce your coffee if you’re feeling stressed, rather than take it up a notch. Try it in a feasible way – don’t cut it out cold turkey. Just don’t do more than two cups a day, and try not to have any coffee after 2:00 pm if you’ve been having trouble sleeping.

If your idea of unwinding and letting off the steam of the day is to end the night with a drink, don’t have a drink after 7pm, so that you leave your sleep architecture intact.

If over the counter medicines are something that you frequently use to feel better or to sleep, cut them back gradually.

If you’re dependent on marijuana or other drugs to feel relaxed, question your need to have them every day.

Whatever the case, is it is important that you first identify and acknowledge if you’re indulging in toxic coping. The next step is to recognize that there is help, and that there are options to help you tackle this. One key could be to find a positive substitute to replace the feeling these substances give you.

All the substances we mentioned can be classified as either uppers or downers. Uppers would be caffeine, amphetamines. Downers are things that sedate you – over the counter sleeping pills, alcohol, valium. If you have a dependency on any of these, substitution can be a  helpful technique. Try and think: what does this substance do for you, and what could replace it with that is actually good for you? How are you going to get that feeling – whether it is stimulation or relaxation? Is it going to be some form of exercise – running, swimming – that replaces the rush of caffeine? Is it going to be meditation, yoga or t’ai chi that replaces the sleeping pill? And it could be something as simple as talking to a friend instead of pouring yourself a drink – replacing the companionship of a glass of alcohol, with that of an actual friend. Really think about what actions and activities could effectively give you the sensation you are currently seeking. Otherwise, it can be all too easy to slip back into toxic coping habits. What we’re trying to do here is give you a similar result without the downside. It’s much like doing a judo move – turning your weakness into a strength. So you’re the best person to know what sensation you’re seeking and craving, and how to give that to yourself while doing the best thing for your mind and body.

Beyond the examples of toxic coping that we shared with you, there is also the question of addictions. Addictions can range from addictions to substances and behaviours. There are even instances where things that can be beneficial – such as electronic devices – can also become dependencies or addictions and interfere with other aspects of one’s life. There is help for all manner of addictions, whether it takes the shape of counseling and support groups where you can talk and share your situation with others, or the help of a medical professional.  We provide some support material in our resources section that give you a sense of what kinds of help are out there.

In conclusion, it is important to note that the key to addressing unhealthy behavior is recognizing and owning that behavior in yourself, and being committed to addressing it with action. If you make this commitment, then the steps you take will be a conscious decision and not an act of avoidance. Moving towards a healthier more beneficial way of being is a process of awareness followed by action, and we ask that you continue to keep the comprehensive approach we’ve been talking about, of nurturing and working on your emotional, physical and cognitive well-being along this journey.

Additional resources: Addictions

  1. As mentioned in the module, we did not delve in to addiction or addictive behaviours. In case you or someone you know has a serious addiction, the help of a counselor, group support or a medical professional is highly recommended. This link provides some resources in understanding and addressing addiction. https://www.bccsu.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Coping-Kit.pdf 
  2. One example of a concerning habit for many is screen time. This Psychology Today article takes a look at how we can do an electronic detox  
  3. The Centre for Disease Control, although a lot of its data is US-based, nevertheless offers a lot of resources and tips for a healthy, active life.
    https:The National Institute on Drug Abuse in the US was formed to to advance science on the causes and consequences of drug use and addiction and to apply that knowledge to improve individual and public health. They have several resources on their website. https://www.drugabuse.gov 
  4. Dr. Daniel Stone, Ph.D is a Vancouver-based counselor who takes an interconnected approach to healthy functioning. His blog offers valuable insights on addictions: https://www.danielstone.org/ideas/addictions 

EOV Medical Director’s recommendations:

  1. A great book that looks at stress overall is ‘Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers?’. By Robert M. Sapolsky. There’s a specific chapter on toxic coping. The book combines cutting-edge research with a healthy dose of good humor and practical advice. 
  2. The Heart and Stroke Foundation has specific advice on coping with stress and heart disease that just about everyone should read. https://www.heartandstroke.ca/get-healthy/reduce-stress/manage-your-stress 

Great additional material:

  1. There are many possibilities and options that people can use to move towards behavior that is beneficial to your health. Healthlink BC provides a list of some of those.
  2. An in-depth article and interview with Michael Pollan about our over-dependency on coffee: https://www.cbc.ca/radio/day6/searching-for-a-coronavirus-vaccine-the-nfl-s-diversity-problem-impeachment-endgame-michael-pollan-more-1.5446572/michael-pollan-s-deep-dive-into-caffeine-reveals-a-world-hooked-on-a-substance-that-helped-shape-our-world-1.5446578 
  3. The Craving Mind is a book by leading neuroscientist Judson Brewer, a pioneer in the study of mindfulness explains why addictions are so tenacious and how we can learn to conquer them 
  4. Psychiatrist Judson Brewer studies the relationship between mindfulness and addiction — from smoking to overeating to all those other things we do even though we know they’re bad for us. Learn more about the mechanism of habit development and discover a simple but profound tactic that might help you beat your next urge to smoke, snack or check a text while driving. https://www.ted.com/talks/judson_brewer_a_simple_way_to_break_a_bad_habit?language=en