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Caring and unhealthy habits

When we’re looking after someone else (on top of our own busy lives), it’s not uncommon to find ways to help us cope. This might be a relaxing glass of wine in the evening, some delicious chocolate or maybe we're a morning run or online yoga type of person.

Some habits are more helpful than others, but moderation is usually the key. However, at some point our reliance on certain habits may become a problem. So, where’s the line between pleasure or problem and how do we know if we’ve crossed it?

Illustration of a man on a balcony

Caring and unhealthy habits

It’s not headline news that looking after someone can take its toll on us. We may be more likely to experience depression, burnout, anxiety and feel overwhelmed whilst taking on the care of another person. This can make us more vulnerable to developing and leaning on unhealthy coping mechanisms. These can often go under the radar, creeping up on us slowly over time.

We asked carers in the Mobilise Community (via our weekly email),

"Do you rely on an unhealthy habit to help you cope?"

Illustration of bar chart results to do you rely on an unhealthy habit to help you cope?

With 198 carers responding, almost a quarter of us *(24%) thought we might have a problem or were worried about relying on something more. And a further 33% of us occasionally relied on an unhealthy habit. So we know we're not alone.

"Since caring for my parents, I've become a cheese and chocolate monster! I've gained so much weight :-("

We can also be impacted when our caring role ends or the person we care for goes into a care home or residential living. We may feel a loss of purpose, a sense of loneliness or an avalanche of uncomfortable feelings. We may also be faced with more practical issues around our finances or home.

We all have those pleasures (whether we call them ‘guilty’ or not) that we reward ourselves with after a long day. Or which supercharge us to get through the next round of challenges facing us.

We’re thinking of that bar of chocolate, an extra episode of our favourite programme or the fancy shower gel that’s on offer at the supermarket. Whilst many of our pleasures, or short cuts for coping, are healthy and boosting, some may not be serving us so well.

Cheese board anyone?

Pleasure or problem?

It can feel freeing to finally make it to the end of the day and treat ourselves to that glass of wine, bottle of beer or online scrolling and shopping. After all, we earned it, right? Maybe we just want to unwind and put the world on hold for a bit, and that can be beneficial as part of our self care.

So when does pleasure become a problem? Some things we can look out for:

  • The reason for needing the habit changes. For example, when our motivation for rewarding ourselves shifts to a different place, such as helping us to forget about our situation or to hide from challenging thoughts or feelings.

  • Frequency. A change in how often we need to access or think about the habit. If we’re spending the whole day thinking about the habit, indulging more than we know we should, or as a coping tool for a specific situation.

  • Feelings of guilt, shame or secrecy. If we have feelings of guilt, shame or secrecy associated with the habit, this may also be a sign that things aren’t great. However - sometimes this can be a hang-up from how other people have made us feel about taking time for ourselves. Be careful, to notice what’s driving those feelings.

When we’re caring for someone else we may face difficult decisions, experience uncomfortable feelings and feel exhausted or overwhelmed. These can contribute to us reaching for easy-fix coping strategies that may not be helpful in the long run.

Alcohol, drugs (including the overuse of, or reliance on, prescribed medication) or other risk-taking behaviours are just some of the habits that can mask thoughts and feelings we may find uncomfortable or traumatic to fully experience. Alcohol and drugs are substances that change the way we feel, physically and mentally.

Impulse shopping and gambling (online and offline) have a similar mental effect to substances as we receive a ‘high’ in pursuing and gaining a win or buying a new “must-have”. Creating a loop of gratification that we can get stuck in. With mobile phones, much of this gratification is at our fingertips.

"I daren't drink in case I need to drive, but I could open a shop with the online clothes I've ordered and failed to return!"

The more we rely on substances or unhelpful behaviours, the more we need to use them to keep providing the solace that we are seeking. This can cause us to become tangled in a cycle where we become unconsciously fixated on having that next ‘hit’.

The effects of substances on us

Most of us use substances in one way or another. Take caffeine for example, that glorious cup of coffee first thing in the morning. It sets us up for the day. Most of us are also keen sugar addicts, whether we know it or not!

Both of these substances have effects on our bodies and brains that we find pleasurable and rewarding when we need a little lift. I mean, who can resist a chocolate biscuit mid-morning?

Illustration of a coffee mug

It can be useful to know how different substances impact us. Caffeine (tea, coffee, cola and energy drinks), nicotine and sugar, for example, are stimulants meaning that they make us feel more alert, awake and confident in short bursts.

Used in moderation they can really help us to function well. Overuse can leave us feeling wiped out but unable to sleep or calm our thinking, leaving us in a state of feeling ‘wired and tired’.

Other substances such as alcohol and benzodiazepines (diazepam, tamazepam etc.) are depressants, meaning that they slow down our body’s functions (breathing, heart rate etc), including our thoughts and ability to process feelings. Used appropriately, depressant substances can help us to relax, sleep and reduce anxiety, but they can also bring down our mood and create a physical and emotional dependence.

It’s also important to be aware of the risks of using alcohol alongside other depressants ie. medication, as this creates a supercharged effect of depressing our functioning and can become a serious problem with a risk of overdose.

It’s useful for us to know how different substances can impact our functioning and thinking. It can help us to recognise what it is that we are looking for in our ‘reward’ and whether we could achieve a similar outcome with less reliance on a substance.

For further reading on different substances and their effects, take a look at Talk to Frank for upfront, honest and easy-to-read information.

What does dependency look like?

Signs of dependency include:

  • Noticing changes to our health, our thinking, or our finances.

  • Changes in how we interact with others or how we’re performing at work.

  • Becoming all consumed with our next “fix” or anxious if we’re running low.

  • Our body’s signal it’s time to top up. This might be a physical sign like the shakes or a mental sign like intrusive thoughts.

  • We prioritise buying alcohol, impulse shopping or gambling over buying essential things like food or other necessities.

"I'm addicted to eating rubbish, mostly through the night when I can't sleep. I've put 3 stone on since I started caring for Mum"

How do we know when we need to make a change?

Whether it’s alcohol, smoking, gambling, shopping or overeating, only we know when it’s time to get help. A good first step can be to think about what dependency may look like for us.

Another helpful starting point can be to consider the 4 Cs test;


  • Loss of CONTROL of amount or frequency of use

  • COMPULSION to use

  • Use despite CONSEQUENCES

How can I tackle dependency?

  • Talk to someone. If we feel able to, it can be helpful to talk through our thoughts with someone else. This can help us to gain perspective and work out a way forward. Useful organisations can also be approached if we have no one in our immediate circle that we feel able to talk to. Speaking with our GP to explore options can also help to bring the right support around us.

  • Keep a diary. Some people find it helpful to keep an honest diary. For example, recording how much we drink each day and when. This can also highlight patterns of behaviour and where certain situations or points in the day may unconsciously be our ‘trigger’ times.

  • Introduce a new (healthier) habit to give the same “reward”. For example, if an evening glass of wine has become a bottle, can we start by reducing the quantity or taking ourselves to another “space” during our “at risk” time - such as going for an evening walk so we’re not tempted. Or topping the wine up with lemonade or soda, so we don’t need to drink as much.

“I like to make a ‘posh tonic’. I use the gin glass and pop ice and botanicals in. It looks like a gin and feels like a treat. I don’t really notice the gin is missing, but still get a feeling of treating myself and relaxing.”

  • Get help from local services. There is help and support to make a positive change. Every local area has free and confidential services who are experts in bringing the right plan together to support us to develop new and more healthy habits. There is no judgement and they won’t ever be shocked by what we tell them!

  • Be honest with ourselves. We’re all only human, and caring for someone can be very challenging. There is no guilt or shame if habits have become problematic. We’re not alone, and with the right support, we can do something positive about our situation.

  • Make friends with our feelings. We can’t move on until we’ve accepted where we are and that starts with noticing how we feel.

  • Get accountability. Sharing our commitments to make changes with other people can also be a powerful way to make a sustainable change.

  • Set small goals. Approaching changes in small and achievable ways is often the most successful. Making a decision to just stop the habits that aren’t serving us is not always the healthy way to achieve long-term change. Our minds and bodies need time to adjust, so making small step changes can be more helpful than a dramatic decision. Where alcohol or medication is involved, just quitting can be physically harmful if our bodies have become dependent. Seeking medical advice on a reduction plan is always advised.

It can be easy to slip back into an old and comfortable habit, despite knowing the impact on our health and wellbeing. Taking each day as it comes and starting over when we have a little blip is all part of the journey.

It can be helpful to have a "towards goal" - something we're moving towards. Rather than something we're running away from. If we assume "we get more of what we focus on" - it's helpful to be focussing on all the benefits and how we will feel once we've quit or got the old habit under control. Whereas, if we focus on what we "don't want to do" we're constantly giving the bad habit "air time" in our minds.

And when we stumble (which we will), being kind to ourselves is more helpful than berating ourselves. We just start over again the next day with a renewed commitment and recognition that we are learning as we go.

Some practical ideas

  • Write down intake/behaviours/feelings/timings over a few weeks to gain a sense of what we are dealing with before making a plan for change.

  • Keep commitments to change small and achievable. Scale-up change slowly over time ie. one alcohol-free day to begin with for a month before moving to two alcohol free days, and so on.

  • If we are looking to reduce or stop smoking, the NHS has local services available who are there to support us.

  • If alcohol is our choice, buying lower percentage alcohol products and/or using less by topping up with lemonade/soda/tonic/water can help to reduce our intake.

  • If overuse of prescribed medication is our concern, requesting a medication review with our GP can be a good place to start. We can talk about a reduction plan and future options for treatment if needed.

  • Share our commitments to change with others - they can help to keep us on track.

  • Connect with others who understand - our local services are the experts and can put us in touch with support networks.

  • If online shopping is our vice, taking our favourite shopping apps off our phone and unsubscribing from their promotional emails can reduce the “push’ notifications we receive.

  • Work out how much we have spent on our choice/s over the past year - this can really be a wake-up call!

  • Visualise how we'll feel when we've kicked the habit, and revisit that image in our mind, whenever we're tempted.

Dealing with the cause

Identifying the cause or “thing” that has led us to rely on an unhealthy habit can be helpful. Along with tackling the unhealthy habit or dependency, we can also consider how we could remove or reduce the trigger and its impact. Essentially tackling things from both ends.

When we’re caring, it might not be “just one thing”. It’s quite likely to be a culmination of many things. However, if the end game is that we’re exhausted, perhaps we could consider respite.

If the overall impact is that we’re managing difficult opinions and demands, perhaps we can consider establishing boundaries. Or if we’re simply feeling lonely, perhaps we could consider accessing a befriending service.

Knowledge is power

Armed with the right information about our feelings and behaviours and how we respond to different rewards can really help us to start to have some control over our decisions.

Often issues relating to substances and/or addiction can feel overwhelming and bring up feelings of shame, guilt and worry. None of us woke up one morning and decided to have an unhealthy relationship with a substance or behaviour - these are issues that can creep up slowly over time and in response to lots of complex factors, feelings and experiences.

Being able to see the journey that our relationship with a substance or behaviour has taken, can help us to start to unravel our attachment and acknowledge that it will take time to move away from it and put new routines in place. Perhaps there are deeper issues that we’ve not addressed.

Useful support organisations

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