How to Care for Yourself When a Loved One Has a Substance Use Disorder

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Having a loved one with a substance use disorder is terribly stressful. You worry about their health, happiness, and safety and at the same time, you know that their substance use will affect you in various ways too. Whether the loved one is a child, a sibling, a parent, a partner, or a close friend, you likely find yourself worn out by conflicting feelings of concern, anxiety, frustration, and anger. This can all have serious effects on your mental and physical health, not to mention putting a tremendous strain on the relationship. It’s important to remember that however much you want to help, there’s not much you can do if you’re not mentally and physically healthy yourself. The following are some tips for caring for yourself when you have a loved one struggling with a substance use disorder.

Remember That It’s Not Your Fault

Part of the stress of having a loved one with a substance use disorder is that you feel personally responsible. This is especially true of parents but it could be true of anyone. You might feel like if only you had done something differently–been stricter or kinder, set a better example, gotten them help earlier, and so on, then you could have prevented all this suffering.

It’s important to remember that while our relationships and childhood environment play a part in developing a substance use disorder, they aren’t the whole story. Genes, mental health issues, and trauma typically play a role too in various degrees. If you feel responsible for your child’s addiction because you had substance use issues yourself, cut yourself some slack because you didn’t choose addiction either. Addiction is something that happens under the wrong set of circumstances, and while there may be something you can do to help, it’s unlikely you can take all the blame.

Work on Setting and Maintaining Boundaries

Healthy boundaries help both you and your loved one. Having healthy boundaries means that you are willing to respect other people’s physical space, values, and autonomy, and you expect the same from them. This benefits you because maintaining clear boundaries shows you are unwilling to be bullied, exploited, or manipulated.

Boundaries are also good for your loved one. First and foremost, setting boundaries ensures you’re not enabling their addiction. That means you’re unwilling to give them money for any reason, pay their bills, or do other things to shield them from the consequences of their drug and alcohol use. Also, having healthy boundaries, both in terms of protecting yourself and respecting their autonomy, may help improve the situation, since poor boundaries among family members sometimes contribute to substance use issues.

Get Enough Sleep

Getting plenty of sleep is one of the single best things you can do for your mental and physical health. Sleep is when your body heals from injuries, fights infections, and generally recovers from the stress of the day. It’s also when your brain clears out accumulated cellular waste and commits new skills and information to long-term memory. Even modest sleep deficits can have a significant impact on your mood and cognition, impairing your working and long-term memory, your attention, your planning, and your emotional regulation. In the long-term, inadequate sleep significantly increases your risk of major depression and anxiety disorders. If you are already dealing with the stress of a loved one’s addiction, poor mental health and cognition are the last things you need. Aim for at least eight hours a night and if you can’t sleep, talk to your doctor or therapist.

Get Regular Exercise

Among lifestyle factors, exercise is nearly as good as sleep for its overall effect on your mental and physical health. In fact, one of its many benefits includes improving sleep. Exercise has been shown to increase the volume of gray matter in the brain, increase blood flow to the brain, improve learning and attention, and slow age-related cognitive decline. Perhaps most importantly for our purposes, exercise significantly improves your response to stress. As noted above, it improves your sleep, with all the benefits that it entails. It also improves your cardiovascular health, which is at especially high risk from chronic stress. Finally, it appears to cause structural changes in your brain that make it less reactive to stress, to begin with. You don’t have to become an Olympic athlete to get these benefits; just walking 20 or 30 minutes a day can help a lot.

Find Social Support

Finally, be sure to seek out social support. The only thing worse that having to cope with a loved one’s substance use disorder is having to cope with it alone. If your loved one behaves in ways that are exploitive, they may even prefer for you to feel isolated because it makes you easier to manipulate. Isolation increases your stress and diminishes your resilience. On the other hand, social connection lowers stress and gives you more confidence and more resources for dealing with problems.

Consider joining a group like Al-Anon or Nar-Anon, for families of people with alcohol and drug use disorders, respectively. They are people who have faced the same challenges you have and they can give you support and advice. You may also want to consider either individual or group therapy. This will help you cope with the stress of your own situation and may help you resolve some issues you don’t even know about. Making yourself happier and more resilient will indirectly have a positive effect on your loved one too.

Having a loved one with a substance use disorder is hard. They seem bent on self-destruction and you might worry they will take you with them. It’s always good to keep the lines of communication open, to listen, and to encourage your loved one to get help. In the meantime, it’s important to take care of yourself too.

At Hired Power, we offer services to assist family members of people struggling with substance use issues. These services include interventions, transportation, case management, and others. To learn more, call us at 714-559-3919.