As the economy falls, alcohol and drug abuse rise, says Arnold Washton, an addiction psychologist and executive director of Recovery Options, a private practice on Herrontown Road specializing in substance abuse treatment for executives and professionals.

“It’s no surprise that substance abuse increases as stress levels go up,” he says, and the current state of the American economy has certainly increased the stress level for almost everyone in the last few months. Job layoffs, mortgage foreclosures, a shrinking economy, poor retail holiday sales; there’s something for everyone to worry about.

Washton will speak on “Financial Stress and Substance Abuse: How Economic Woes Fuel Alcohol and Drug Abuse,” at the next Business before Business Breakfast sponsored by the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, January 21, at 7:30 a.m. at the Nassau Club. Cost: $30. Visit www.princetonchamber.org.

A substance abuse consultant for Princeton House Behavioral Health, in addition to his practice, Washton is a graduate of New York University, where he received his bachelor’s in psychology in 1968. He earned his Ph.D. from the City University of New York in 1978. Washton began working with patients with substance abuse and other addictive behaviors in 1975. “While I was finishing my training I took a part time job at an addiction center for heroin addicts in Harlem,” he says. “It was not my area of specialization, but I fell in love with the work. I had planned to stay there from three to six months and I ended up staying for 10 years.”

Washton has designed and directed several nationally-known addiction research and treatment programs and has worked as a substance abuse consultant to professional sports teams, foreign governments, multinational corporations, and the Food and Drug Administration. His “Integrative Treatment Approach” was cited by the National Institute on Drug Abuse as “one of the best known and most widely respected treatment programs in the United States.”

Managing uncertainty. Financial stress is one of the worst types of stress when compared to other typical stressors, Washton says, because “it tears at our self-esteem. If a person can no longer support the lifestyle they are used to, or pay the necessary bills, or send their kids to school they feel bad about themselves.”

The “current air of uncertainty” about the economy makes many people more vulnerable to addictive behaviors,” he says. “Most people are not good at managing uncertainty. They become irritable and depressed, making the pleasurable effects of alcohol or drugs all the more reinforcing.”

The reality, however, is that while these substances can bring short-term relief, long term use actually increases feelings of depression, making it even more likely that the person will continue the abuse.

Early warning signs. Turning to drugs or alcohol in these types of situations is rarely a conscious choice. “People don’t think to themselves, ‘I’m upset so I’m going to drink more or do drugs,’” Washton says. Instead, people are more likely to increase their use.

For example, a person who usually has one drink before dinner may find himself wanting two or three. A person who only drinks at parties may start to add a drink or two at home during the week, or the person who never drinks during the day may find herself making excuses to have that margarita with lunch several times a week.

“Be mindful of your alcohol intake,” says Washton. Any change in drinking patterns can be an early warning sign of a problem. Even a switch from beverages with lower alcohol content, such as beer or wine, to hard liquor can be an early sign of a problem.

Other factors. Many people believe that they do not have a problem with alcohol or drugs if they are not physically addicted. Physical dependence or addiction occurs when chronic use of a drug produces tolerance, or the need to continually increase the dosage, and negative physical symptoms of withdrawal if use is stopped abruptly. However, Washton says, physical addiction is not the only sign of an alcohol or drug problem. Many people can have a problem with substance abuse and not be physically addicted.

For men, drinking more than two drinks a day on a regular basis should be seen as a warning sign. Because of their smaller body mass, women who drink more than one drink a day on a regular basis may be in danger of developing a problem.

In addition, people who are taking certain types of medication should also be more careful about their drinking habits. Blood pressure medications, for example, can increase the effects of alcohol. People who are taking anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications should be particularly careful, says Washton. Alcohol can actually negate the effects of these medications, so that the drinker inadvertently increases the stress and anxiety they are attempting to relieve.

Getting help. Often friends or family members are the first to notice if someone has a potentially dangerous change in their behavior. “Express concern in a non-threatening, non-aggressive way,” says Washton. “Don’t point a finger. Explain what you have seen in a straightforward, dispassionate manner.” For example, a wife might say, “I have noticed that you have begun having two drinks every evening before dinner rather than one.”

“The more you twist the person’s arm, the more defensive they are likely to become,” Washton adds. This only leads the person with the problem to “retreat and become more skilled at hiding the behavior.” Enlisting the family doctor is often a good way to get help for a person with a substance abuse problem. “Many people will hesitate to see a therapist as a first step, but they will listen to a family doctor who can refer them to appropriate treatment,” says Washton.

In addition, many people will avoid getting help because they believe that the only method of treatment for substance abuse is an in-patient rehabilitation facility, making them shy away from treatment because they are worried about the effect on their careers or reputations. “Drug treatment facilities are reserved for the most serious problems,” says Washton, “the people who continue to use drugs or alcohol despite significant negative effects on their lives.”

Many people, however, can continue their regular work and personal schedules while undergoing treatment. Substance abuse has negative effects not only on a person’s physical and emotional health, but also on relationships as well. It is important to be aware of the signs of a potential problem and find help as soon as possible.

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