Many people who use alcohol or drugs can recall occasionally using them in response to emotions – think celebrating at a wedding or having a drink at the end of a stressful day. But when someone develops a pattern of substance use as an emotional response, it can turn into a problem. Pete VanDusartz, director of behavioral health for HealthPartners hospitals and clinics in the St. Croix Valley, explains this with an example of emotional drinking:

“When somebody drinks alcohol, if their stress tolerance is really low and they’re irritated by everything, and drinking alcohol seems to calm that or make them less likely to react, then that could be reinforcing. And it can be similar if they have feelings of low self-esteem and just aren’t feeling good about themselves.”

This kind of relationship isn’t limited to alcohol, or to specific emotional states. Pete, along with Brian Bartlett and Brian Francis, who work as managers at the Programs for Change treatment program, joined us on the For Health’s Sake podcast to discuss the larger patterns involved in these substance-emotion relationships. We covered:

  • How substance use can get woven into emotional experiences
  • Signs that substance use is becoming a problem
  • Tools for working through emotions
  • The value of a recovery program

Get help for self-medication

If you or a loved one have substance use concerns, going to your primary care doctor for an assessment and some recommendations is a great first step. As Pete says, “Here in health care, we know how to connect people to the right resources and get started on identifying the problem, figuring out how big of a problem it is and figuring out what interventions will be helpful.”