Self-medicating with alcohol or drugs is a relatively common occurrence with potentially serious complications. When you self-medicate with substances, it can lead to addiction, worsening mental health conditions, and physical health complications.

What Is Self-Medicating?

Self-medication occurs when you’re doing anything that’s outside of the recommendations of a prescription or medical professional. You can use it in the context of trying to treat your physical health condition, but we often hear it used concerning mental health.

  • Self-medication can occur with psychoactive substances, including prescription and illicit drugs. 
  • According to the self-medication hypothesis, some people self-medicate with heavy alcohol use, food, and even caffeine. 
  • When you’re trying to boost your mood, reduce your anxiety or deal with your symptoms of depression, you might try substances to help you. According to the self-medication theory, you could smoke marijuana to relax or have alcohol to deal with social anxiety. 
  • You might use Xanax to fall asleep or medications like Adderall to help improve your productivity at work.

When you’re using drugs or alcohol in certain ways to deal with symptoms of a mental health disorder or medication for mood disorders, we can describe it as self-medicating.

You may know you have a mental health disorder already, but you aren’t sure how to use healthy coping mechanisms to deal with it. For other people, the condition is undiagnosed, and they don’t realize how they’re relying on unhealthy coping strategies.

The pandemic in the United States has brought to light just how common self-medication can be. During the COVID-19 situation, there were often memes and online discussions about people using substances and unhealthy strategies to deal with fear, anxiety, depression, and boredom.

Unfortunately, while it might temporarily feel good, self-medication will only worsen your situation and mental health. Many substance use disorders stem from self-medicating, according to previous studies.

This is likely because there is a link between substance use disorders and mental health disorders. If you have a mental disorder like depressive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder, you are at greater risk for drug use disorders and vice versa. 

Reasons for Self-Medication

To meet self-medication criteria, you don’t necessarily have to have a diagnosable mental health condition. You could have temporarily distressing or uncomfortable feelings, but if you’re using drugs or alcohol to get through them, we can see this described as self-medicating.

We all worry or have times when we’re struggling. These struggles or feelings of sadness, fear, or hopelessness can be fleeting. If they’re not and start to interfere with how you function in your daily life, you could have an underlying condition.

Whether you’re acutely aware of psychiatric disorders or not, you might feel a temptation to cope with what you’re feeling or your symptoms in what can seem simple—having a glass of wine, or taking a pill, for example.

People might also attempt to cope with unpleasant feelings or memories from past experiences, leading to post-traumatic stress disorder. Unresolved trauma, such as being the victim of physical or sexual abuse, can lead you to reach for something to dull or numb what you feel.

Any individual might turn to drugs, alcohol, or other substances for comfort, depending on the person and their experiences.

We briefly touched on some of the substances most commonly used to medicate yourself. More specifically, these include:

  • Alcohol self-medication: Self-medicating with alcohol is the most common form, according to organizations like the Mental Health Services Administration. Alcohol, since it’s widely available and culturally accepted, is also one of the most abused substances. When using alcohol for stress, depressive symptoms, or anxiety, it can worsen symptoms because it is itself a depressant, triggering the onset of alcohol abuse. 
  • Prescription medications: Someone taking prescription drugs as instructed isn’t self-medicating, even when it’s for symptoms of a mental health disorder. Suppose someone takes prescription medicinal products that aren’t theirs or uses one of the drugs outside of how it’s intended and prescribed. In that case, that can fall into the category of medicating yourself. Non-prescribed medications like opioids might be used for anxiety or sleep. ADHD medications can help with brain fog, low mood, or symptoms of depression. Anti-anxiety medications are often used to help people relax or numb their emotional pain. Using a previous prescription that you are no longer instructed to take can also reflect problematic habits. 
  • Illegal drugs: Anytime you’re using an illicit drug or addictive drug such as cocaine, meth, or heroin to deal with symptoms of a mental disorder, it can create significant problems in your life. Illegal drug abuse and substance abuse can significantly worsen psychiatric symptoms. 
  • Food: Emotional eating can be a way to deal with negative feelings or emotions by eating. Emotional eaters might have specific mental health symptoms that they deal with by consuming high-sugar, high-fat or high-carb foods in particular. 
  • Nicotine dependence: While we don’t think about nicotine as psychoactive, it can be, in addition to being highly addictive. People can use nicotine as a medication for mood symptoms like anxiety or depression.
Self Medicating

Signs of Self-Medicating

While it can look different depending on your situation, some of the signs that you might be medicating yourself include:

  • You use drugs or alcohol when you’re feeling stressed, anxious or depressed. Most people have at least very occasionally used a substance to deal with something negative or bad news, but if you’re doing it often to cope or make yourself feel better, it could be problematic. Another example of using substances as a medication tool is when you do it to be more social. For example, if you feel like you have to drink before a social event, you might be attempting to medicate social anxiety.
  • Drugs and alcohol might be making you feel worse. They’re very temporary in the relief they provide, and then they worsen symptoms and negative feelings. Drugs and alcohol reduce your energy levels, lower your immune system, impact your mood, and worsen your overall suffering.
  • A sign that your use of substances is a problem can occur when you need more of whatever it is to feel any relief or desired effects. For example, maybe initially you had a drink at night to relax. Now, you need three or four to feel relaxed. When you have a higher tolerance, you need more drugs or alcohol. As you continue patterns of medicating your symptoms, your tolerance keeps going up. Then, the problems related to substance use will grow until you find healthier ways to cope.
  • Your problems are growing. You started using drugs or alcohol to deal with stress, for example. Now, your problems have only become worse. Your relationships or career might be suffering, and you feel more upset or stressed.
  • You start to feel anxious if you don’t have access to substances. Maybe you worry about a social event where there won’t be alcohol, or you try to stockpile your prescription to make sure you don’t run out.
  • A red flag can be worry coming from your friends and family about your substance use.

The Risks of Coping with Substances

Coping with stress or mental health disorders through substance use creates several serious risks, including:

  • New or worsening symptoms
  • Potentially dangerous interactions between the substances you use
  • The development of new mental health problems
  • Substance use disorders and alcohol use disorders 
  • You may delay getting help when you’re in a cycle of medicating your problems yourself

So what can you do?

The best thing to do is to recognize more consciously what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. From there, you can explore treatment options and mental health care that will help you not only break your patterns of self-medicating but also treat the underlying reasons for self-medication. You have to target those root causes, whatever they may be.

When you have drug use disorders or disorders with alcohol combined with a mental health disorder, it’s known as a co-occurring disorder

Common co-occurring disorders with substance use include

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Depressive disorder
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Social phobia
  • Bipolar disorders

Substance Abuse Treatment in the San Francisco Area

If you’d like to learn more, please get in touch with our team of addiction specialists confidentially by calling 408-547-4089. We can connect you with Silicon Valley Recovery health care professionals to help you understand why you self-medicate and how to change these coping mechanisms. 

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