Substance Use and You
Every person has their own relationship with substances. Some may take substances more often than others, and everyone has their own reasons for using them. If you think that substance use might be becoming a problem for you or someone you know, read this section. It has tips on what you might start to notice, how to help manage use and what steps you can take to make changes to habits.
Why people use
It’s common for people to experiment with substances. Many people try them once or only use them rarely. Others may use regularly. You may have first tried alcohol or another drug because you found it lifted your mood, made you feel more relaxed or energized. Maybe you drink coffee every morning to feel energetic and get things done. Some folks are prescribed drugs to help them maintain their health in their daily life. Maybe your friends were using drugs and you felt pressure to try so you’d fit in, or so you wouldn’t be judged if you didn’t join them.
Using substances regularly can impact how we feel, think and act. There are many reasons why people use substances and usually, they relate to how the person is feeling or wants to feel. Using substances can be influenced by how connected the person feels to family members, friends, people at school or work, and others in their community. For example, people may use substances to feel better, more in control or less sad. Some people choose to use substances to self-medicate their feelings or thoughts like anxiety or feeling down. Folks struggling with mental health symptoms may turn to substances to help them try and manage their mood, or control racing thoughts or recurring scary incidents.
Some people use substances as a way to numb themselves from discrimination or from other challenges in their lives. We are all affected by social determinants of health, or what the World Health Organization describes as non-medical things that affect our health like the conditions in which we are born, grow, work, live, and age. They include the forces and systems that shape the conditions of our daily lives.
The chart below shows how many life situations can cause us stress, create mental health challenges and influence our decision to use substances. These social factors can include things like a demanding work schedule, financial problems, intergenerational trauma, racism, a friend group that uses substances, or identifying as gender or sexually diverse in an environment that doesn’t support or validate a range of experiences.
Consider the various parts of your life and how they could be affecting your substance use.
For thousands of years, natural tobacco has been an important part of Indigenous culture in many parts of British Columbia and Canada. Tobacco, peyote, or ayahuasca have been used in ceremonies by Indigenous Peoples since time immemorial in culturally significant settings. Non-traditional uses of substances can be a part of the continuum of substance use, and problematic substance use may require treatment or support options. There are programs that provide support and effective options for healing, care and medicine that honour the rich history of the wisdom and knowledge of Indigenous Peoples, including:
- Indigenous knowledge of well-being as a balance of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health
- an understanding that holistic wellness must also include the broader social, economic, cultural and environmental determinants of health
Healing from substance use is an individual journey for each person. Processing trauma, grief and loss can be a long and difficult task with no easy answers. For more information on culturally safe support options, explore the First Nations Health Authority mental health and wellness supports.
How is substance use affecting my health?
Substance use affects all parts of our health – our mental health, how we feel spiritually, and how we feel physically. The effect it has on our bodies depends on what drug we are using and how much we are taking. It is also impacted by our body shape and size like our muscle-to-fat ratio, and what our health is like in general.
Substance use can affect every organ in your body in different ways, such as:
- lower your immune system, making you more likely to have colds, flu and other illnesses
- delay or slow healing
- cause problems sleeping
- result in dental problems
- create memory problems
- affect appetite and cause poor eating
- result in kidney, liver and heart damage, or even cancer over a period of time
These are only a few things that may happen if you use substances. They may not happen at all if you take steps to reduce harm for yourself while using. You may be able to still use substances safely depending on the type of substance use and many other factors.
How do I know if my substance use may be a problem?
Sometimes people use substances to help them cope with pain, stress or challenges in life. If you are depressed or anxious or have difficulties with anger, you may be more likely to use substances to cope with or escape your feelings. Using substances to feel better in the short term can turn into higher-risk substance use over time. You may experience other negative effects, or have to use more and more. You may find that the benefits that you once experienced are now gone. Substance use can stop you from feeling your feelings and finding healthier ways to deal with what is troubling. It prevents you from talking about how you are doing and what’s really going on.
Substance use can become a problem over time if you:
- have tried to stop or cut back but can’t
- feel like you have to use
- are using more and more
- are always thinking about getting high
- can’t seem to control how much you use
- feel like your substance use is the only thing in your life that makes you happy
- are hiding your substance use
- find that your substance use is having negative effects on other parts of your life (school, relationships, health)
- have used substances from a young age and continue to use frequently, without the supervision of a doctor
- struggle with mental health challenges and use substances as a way to cope
If you think you have a substance use problem, you may feel shame, fear, guilt or many other feelings. You may find it difficult to acknowledge there is a problem, or may not want to seek help. But if your substance use is taking over your life, and you feel like you can’t live without it, you may need to ask for and get help. Help can mean a lot of different things and it’s your journey to find what works for you.
What if drugs are the only thing that makes me happy?
Sometimes drug use produces what we call “feel-good effects.” Substance use can take away your anxiety and help you to forget your worries. Sometimes it makes you feel more comfortable and relaxed — like at a party or in other social situations. But the more you use, the worse your overall health can get. Drugs like alcohol can actually rewire your brain over time. So what used to make you happy when you were sober stops having that effect.
If you find that substance use is the only thing that makes you happy, you might want to explore your negative feelings (such as depression or anxiety). You might consider looking for support to explore the causes underlying your unhappiness and find healthy ways to cope with those feelings.
So Now What? Managing your use
You know best what your biggest challenges and struggles are, and what makes you feel good and bad. A part of managing your substance use is about managing your mental health. But mental health isn’t a destination or something you arrive at. Your mental health is something that moves back and forth on a spectrum. You may feel sad, worried and stressed one day, and then happier and better able to take care of yourself and your responsibilities another.
Some ways to manage your substance use while also managing your mental health include:
- having social support, like friends who are caring and won’t pressure you to use
- finding things that distract you from substance use, like other interests, activities or hobbies
- avoiding being around people, places or situations where you will be tempted to use (also known as triggers)
- focusing on your overall health like eating a variety of foods, staying physically active, having a good night’s sleep, and finding support that honours your culture
- getting professional support for your mental health and/or substance use problems. Check out the Get Support page for more information on support options for substance use.
See The Basics for more about:
- making a safety plan before using
- harm reduction strategies while using
It’s important that you are always aware of the substances you take and how to best manage your use so that it supports your lifestyle instead of being harmful.
Want to explore and learn more? Here are a couple options that will help you.