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Image by Danny Lines


by Maureen Pollard

Emotional Health Editor

Maureen Pollard, MSW, RSW is a registered social worker with a private practice in Cobourg, Ontario.  Visit her online at:

We all need ways to unwind after a stressful day - a little pick-me-up when we’re feeling down - or something to ease the pain when we’re hurt. We tend to have our favourites that we can go to when life gets uncomfortable. However, if our coping strategies include substances like alcohol and drugs, it can be a challenge to keep the balance just right. To learn more about substance use, harm re-education, and self care, I spoke with Nicole Whitmore, Outreach and Addictions Worker at the Green Wood Coalition in Port Hope, Ontario.

Signs Your Substance Use is Causing More Harm Than Good:

There’s a Physical/Mental/Emotional Impact 

If you find that any sign of distress, whether you’re feeling hurt, angry, lonely, tired or bored, cues you to use the substance to relieve that feeling, it can be a signal that the substance has control. When you don’t have it, you’re craving it. When you stop using the substance, you notice withdrawal symptoms such as sweating, shaking, headaches, nausea and anxiety.

It’s a Self-Medication Strategy

Do you find yourself turning to substances first, seeking intentional numbing to escape distress and dull painful feelings? Be aware that substances may give you what you seek temporarily, but they can quickly begin to have side effects and negative consequences, including problems performing at school or work, physical health problems, money problems and sometimes even legal problems. 

It’s Become Something You Hide

If you’ve noticed yourself withdrawing from people in your life, avoiding conversations and pulling away due to worry about what they will think or say about your substance use, open up to a loved one. Keeping secrets about your habits can lead to having less genuine connections, leaving you feeling quite lonely and isolated.


Reducing the Risks:

Reduce Your Use

You might need to set limits on your substance use to prevent harm and negative consequences. This might mean deciding that you don’t drink on weekdays rather than seven days a week, or that you’ll only use marijuana just before bed instead of all day long. It might mean you choose to use substances only on special social occasions, not as a regular habit or when you’re alone.

Change Your Use

Have you noticed that you react differently to different substances? Maybe every time you drink hard liquor like rum, vodka, gin or whiskey, you engage in riskier behaviour than when you drink beer or coolers. Perhaps you find that every time you drink, you end up calling a dealer and using a hard street drug at the same time. When you notice these patterns, you have an opportunity to take control of your use and reduce the negative effects in your life.

Change Your Crowd

Sometimes habits develop when we hang out with certain people, leading to patterns of risky substance use every time you’re with a particular set of friends. If you notice that every time you’re with your party group it’s causing problems in your life, it may be time to reassess your friendships. One way to change the pattern is by always meeting up with them in public instead of hanging out at someone’s house. However, if these friends encourage unhealthy substance habits and don’t support you trying to change, it may be time to decide whether you want to keep hanging out with them. 

Satisfying Your Positive Intentions

Every action we take is intended to meet a need or solve a problem. Substances are a part of many people’s social lives across our society, and the risks that can come along with substance use make it important to be self aware and to have a plan to take care of yourself by meeting your needs in healthy ways.

Find People Who Lift You Up

Everyone needs a friend who’s on their side; someone who accepts you just as you are and cares about you. It may be a family member or friend, or it may be someone you haven’t met yet. Someone, somewhere out there wants to support you. Look for them. A word to the wise: you might have to look in places you haven’t spent much time in lately.

Learn How to Lift Yourself Up

You are intelligent, talented, funny and friendly. You may not be well-acquainted with these great parts of you. Maybe you have been distracted by the wounds and hard lessons of your past. That’s okay. It’s never too late to become more familiar with your best self. You are doing the best you can, sometimes in very difficult circumstances. Offer yourself the same generous compassion that you would offer a friend or family member going through a hard time. You’re worthy of that love, too.

Explore Ways to Express Yourself


We all need an outlet for emotions. It could be music, art, sports, baking, or countless others! Many people also find journaling is a great tool to sort through feelings and events. You can write about the ways you use, the reasons you use, and the needs you’re trying to meet. A journal can be a safe way to explore your experiences as you consider your options. It can be really revealing to read about your thoughts after the fact.

Be Sober Curious


What does it feel like to go to a party sober and stay that way through the night? Offer to be the designated driver and earn some gas money. How does it feel different the next morning? Are you physically stronger and mentally clear? What are some ways you can spend time with friends without using substances to loosen up and pass the time? Consider working out together, going hiking or playing a sport. If one friend is struggling, can a group of friends join in and take a break from substance use in support of that person? 

Confidently Be Your Best Self

Research before you use, and plan for safety. Know how your body responds to substances. Know your limits. Or make the decision that you don’t need to know how every substance acts in your system. Practice saying “No, thank you.” You don’t need to offer any explanations. Just be confident that you’re making the best choice for you as you live your best life.

For more information about the Green Wood Coalition, please visit their website at:

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