Boredom and Substance Abuse: A Dangerous Combination

By Jane St. Clair

Boredom and substance abuse are not a good mix. Boredom is one of the main reasons people start abusing drugs, and the top reason addicts give for relapsing.

People who are bored are more likely to experiment with and become addicted to illegal substances and alcohol. People in rehabilitation programs for substance abuse are more likely to remain addicted and relapse back into substance abuse if they are bored. This is true whether the abuser is an adult or a teenager.

Teenagers who are “frequently bored” increase their chances for substance abuse by 50 percent, according to a study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. The study identified two other risk factors for teen substance abuse, which were having $25 or more a week in spending money and being under stress. If a teen is bored and has one or both of the other risk factors, their chances of becoming a substance abuser increases by 300 percent compared to teens without any risk factors.

In studies done in Great Britain and South Africa, researchers also found a strong link between boredom and teen substance abuse. Boredom was defined as “having nothing to do,” “hanging out at malls or on street corners,” or not having sufficiently stimulating leisure activities. In all these studies, boredom was associated with binge drinking, using party drugs like ecstasy, and experimenting with marijuana and prescription drugs.

The Link to Addiction

Feeling bored often leads people to abuse drugs and alcohol, but unless they find “sufficiently stimulating leisure activities,” they are likely to remain addicted. In one study of 365 addicts who had completed a treatment program, boredom was the number one reason given for re-using drugs or alcohol, followed by anxiety, loneliness and anger. “Boredom is extremely pertinent when clients first stop using drugs since they generally have no idea what to do with themselves and feel very lost,” said Michael Levy, author of Listening to Our Clients: The Prevention of Relapse.

Levy’s clients told him that they felt empty without drugs or alcohol, and they didn’t know what to do with their time. They often found themselves lonely and bored because they were no longer socializing with former friends who use drugs and alcohol. “Drug use had taken up most of their time,” Levy wrote, “and as a result, they never developed other interests, and leisure activities or previous pursuits have been dropped due to drug use.”

Beating the Boredom

What these studies tell us is that it is not enough for substance abusers just to go through chemical withdrawal from drugs or alcohol and then go back to their lives as usual. Substance abusers need to develop a set of new leisure pursuits while they are in rehabilitation or else they will relapse when they leave their substance abuse treatment centers and return to their old environments. The most effective treatment programs help clients find new interests, hobbies and new career paths. Stress-reducing activities, such as sports and yoga, are also helpful. Some studies show that the more a treatment program is individualized to a client’s interests and personality, the more likely he is to remain abstinent on a permanent basis. Taking classes in yoga, scuba diving and art therapy may seem impractical to outsiders or to clients in a hurry to return to work, but they can be vital components of comprehensive treatment.

Parents who want to keep their teens off drugs should keep in mind the CASA studies about boredom. The studies indicate that children begin experimenting with tobacco, drugs and alcohol in middle or high school because that age group craves risk-taking and adventure. Parents can help their preteens and teens channel their need for excitement and novelty into healthier activities like competitive sports or drama. These are the years when teens can experiment with new subjects at schools, interests, hobbies and volunteer work.

When a person is fully engaged in pursuing what he loves to do most, then substance abuse becomes the boring alternative