Contributor: Staff at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center
In the 1970s, the bath and beauty products company Calgon struck marketing gold with an advertising campaign that addressed an urge virtually everyone experiences at one time or another: the desire to somehow escape the stresses, pressures, fears, and frustrations of everyday life. The ads’ tagline, “Calgon, take me away!” positioned the company’s products as a source of magical relief from whatever challenges a person had been experiencing.
For some people, a hot bath at the end of a hard day can indeed be a temporary oasis of serenity. For others, activities such as exercising, reading, playing video games, watching television, and meditating provide essential moments of emotional escapism.
Difficult experiences are unavoidable parts of life. And while it’s important to deal with these occurrences and their emotional ramifications, finding healthy ways to step away for a bit can be essential acts of self-care.
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Unfortunately, many people turn to alcohol and other substances in a misguided attempt to escape problematic experiences, emotions, or memories. Among the many problems with this behavior is that it puts these people at risk for myriad negative outcomes, including addiction.
What Is Escapism?
Escapism is generally understood to be an attempt to distract oneself from unpleasant aspects of life by engaging in enjoyable, imaginative, or entertaining activities. In moderation, escapist pursuits can be both normal and harmless. But when the desire to escape begins to infringe on a person’s ability to live a full and healthy life, this may be a sign of a significant problem.
According to the American Psychological Association, escapism “may reflect a periodic, normal, and common impulse, as might be seen in harmless daydreams, or it may be evidence of or accompany symptoms of neurosis or more serious mental pathology” .
People who have survived traumatic experiences or who struggle with mental health concerns such as anxiety and depression may become trapped by an overwhelming urge to escape the memories of the trauma or numb themselves to their emotional pain. In such cases, escapist behaviors can prevent the person from getting the help they need, exacerbate the underlying concerns, and cause significant additional harm.
Escapism, Substance Use, and Addiction
Using alcohol or other drugs in an attempt to cope with stress or ignore disappointments is unfortunately common in many cultures. However, just because a behavior is common does not mean that it is healthy or safe.
In a 2009 article that was published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Dr. Sinha Rajita of the Yale University Department of Psychiatry wrote that there is “substantial literature on the significant association between acute and chronic stress and the motivation to abuse addictive substances” .
Dr. Rajita also noted that researchers had identified a connection between continued exposure to stress and an increased risk for substance use and addiction.
“The findings indicate that the cumulative number of stressful events was significantly predictive of alcohol and drug dependence in a dose-dependent manner, even after accounting for control factors,” she wrote .
If a person’s use of substances as an escape mechanism has led to an addiction, they need professional care. In addition to treating the substance use disorder, a qualified professional can also identify and address any co-occurring concerns that may have led to or been exacerbated by the person’s substance use.
Ideally, a person will develop healthier alternatives for coping with stress before they turn to alcohol or other drugs. Strategies that can help may include:
- Practicing mindfulness: Many sources describe mindfulness as the opposite of escapism. When you practice mindfulness, you focus on being fully in the moment, aware of the experience you are currently having, and cognizant of your thoughts, feelings, and sensory perceptions.
- Exercising regularly: Several studies, including a 2015 evaluation involving about 300 university students in Texas, have reported that exercise is associated with lower perceived stress levels . Exercise can take many forms, including walking, bicycling, swimming, and yoga. Finding a form of exercise you enjoy will increase the likelihood that you’ll continue to engage in this activity.
- Getting help: Withdrawal and isolation can increase stress and lead to a host of other problems. Depending on the specific circumstances, getting help can involve talking to a trusted loved one, attending a support group meeting, consulting with a mental health professional, or entering a treatment program. What’s most important is knowing that you are not alone.
According to the Brief COPE, which is an adapted version of the Coping Orientation to Problems Experienced (COPE) Inventory, the following are examples of statements that indicate that a person is coping with stress in a healthy manner :
- I’ve been concentrating my efforts on doing something about the situation I’m in.
- I’ve been trying to come up with a strategy about what to do.
- I’ve been getting emotional support from others.
- I’ve been getting help and advice from other people.
- I’ve been looking for something good in what is happening.
- I’ve been trying to find comfort in my religion or spiritual beliefs.
- I’ve been taking action to try to make the situation better.
When a person incorporates healthy stress management mechanisms into their daily life, and when they’re willing to reach out to others in times of crisis, they are less likely to use alcohol and other substances as a means of escapism.
1. American Psychological Association. (n.d.). APA Dictionary of Psychology. American Psychological Association. https://dictionary.apa.org/escapism.
2. Sinha R. Chronic stress, drug use, and vulnerability to addiction. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2008;1141:105-130. doi:10.1196/annals.1441.030.
3. Sinha R. Chronic stress, drug use, and vulnerability to addiction. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2008;1141:105-130. doi:10.1196/annals.1441.030.
4. Garber, M. C. (2017, April 1). Exercise as a Stress Coping Mechanism in a Pharmacy Student Population. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education. https://www.ajpe.org/content/ajpe/81/3/50.full.pdf.
5. Carver, C. S. (n.d.). Brief Cope. University of Miami – College of Arts & Sciences – Psychology. https://local.psy.miami.edu/faculty/ccarver/sclBrCOPE.phtml.
About Our Sponsor:
At Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center, located outside of Chicago, Illinois, we provide specialized care for women and girls who are living with mental health conditions such as substance use disorders and eating disorders. Our private facility offers female-only treatment programs for eating disorders, addiction, and a range of mental health conditions. We work closely with each person to develop treatment goals to maximize strengths while focusing on individual needs. Our treatment team understands that each woman has unique needs and that she must play a role in her journey to wellness.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from multiple physical, emotional, environmental, and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published on July 7, 2021
Reviewed by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on July 7, 2021
Published on AddictionHope.com