You got up late, so you got to work late that morning. Then the traffic on the way home was worse because you had to leave later than normal. By the time you got home you were annoyed, ready to just relax and be happy.
You pour yourself a glass of wine. Not that big of a deal.
You make it to work on time the next day, but your boss says that thing you hate, the thing that makes you feel like crap, so when you get home you have a glass of wine.
The next day you just want to get to sleep and not think about work, so you pour a glass of wine, maybe this time a little bigger than the last two.
Or maybe you hurt your back one weekend, you fell down some stairs and it hurt enough you went to the doctor, who prescribed some Vicodin. After the pain went away you still had some pills, you didn’t think about them until you hurt your back again, this time playing sports.
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A friend asks if you want to go hiking, and you take the Vicodin with you just in case. Eventually, you end up thinking a Vicodin would really help you on that walk to work.
Sometimes the pressure of daily life feels like it’s too much, there seems like there are more problems than solutions, and you might reach for drugs or alcohol because they’ll help you forget those problems for a little while. You may just be delaying your need to find a solution for a specific problem, though.
You may be self-medicating.
What does that mean, exactly? Rather than seeking medical advice or focusing on their health and well-being, a person uses drugs or alcohol to try and alleviate their symptoms, whether those symptoms are physical, mental and emotional, or a combination of all three.
How Can You Recognize Self-Medication in Yourself and Others
Just like addiction and recovery aren’t the same for everyone, each person could be self-medicating for a lot of reasons. There are some common reasons for self-medicating, however, and looking for situations that match is a good way to check if you or someone you know is self-medicating.
- Has something traumatic recently happened? It doesn’t necessarily have to be a personal trauma, either. The National Institute of Drug Abuse cites the ability of “direct or indirect exposure to severe traumatic events” as a possible reason for self-medicating.
- Rather than making hard decisions, or thinking through a difficult upcoming choice, drugs or alcohol are used as a way to escape, or even to “have fun” rather than “being serious.”
- Are there certain feelings that trigger the need for self-medicating? Feelings like sadness or anger that seem to come from nowhere?
- Do your worries and/or problems just seem to get worse when you drink or use drugs?
Again, these are only a few common reasons, there are many reasons someone may turn to self-medication rather than seeking treatment. It also may be hard to recognize there is something that needs to be diagnosed, particularly because of one common factor.
Stress: One of the Most Common Reasons for Self-Medication
According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, “[s]tressful events can profoundly influence” the decision to use alcohol or drugs, whether that is relapsing during long-term recovery or self-medicating. And according to a 2007 report from the American Psychological Association, a third of Americans experience extreme stress, plus almost 50% of Americans believe their stress been increasing steadily.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) says struggling with alcohol use is common for “people who have social anxiety disorder.” This co-occurrence can lead to self-medicating to help deal with the stress and anxiety of just being in public or a crowd of people.
A more severe form of stress is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as mentioned before. This can be completely debilitating, and the National Institute of Health (NIH) lists possible fallout as having trouble getting past thoughts or memories of the trauma, not being able to sleep regularly, or feeling disconnected from the world.
The NIH also goes on to state, “In severe forms, PTSD can significantly impair a person’s ability to function at work, at home, and socially.” In situations like this, self-medication can be a common reaction. The need for a medical diagnosis may be pushed aside due to the fear of confronting the trauma itself, or even because the person suffering may feel the problem isn’t bad enough to visit the doctor.
This can lead to the symptoms getting worse. As the Anxiety and Depression Association of American puts it, “Most people with alcohol or substance use and anxiety disorders experience them independently, but having both can be a vicious cycle.” Self-medicating for your stress can lead to more stress, and can also make your drinking a larger problem.
What if you’re more than stressed, though? What if the reason you drink or use drugs as a form of self-medication is to try and deal with feelings of overwhelming sadness that may be signs of depression?
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Trying to Chase Depression Away
Defined as “a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sorrow and a loss of interest in everyday activities,” depression can lead to a major sense of helplessness within your life. It’s important to remember depression isn’t as simple as feeling a little sad. There are multiple types of depression, all needing official medical diagnoses to best treat them.
Each substance has its own negative effects from self-medicating for depression. Studies show that drinking alcohol, while maybe leading to a short-term increase in feeling happy or outgoing, can contribute to not only potential alcohol use problems, but can in fact worsen depression.
Why is that?
First, alcohol is a depressant, meaning it “depresses” the central nervous system; it can slow thinking, bring about slurred speech, and make it harder to walk and use your hands.
It’s been shown that both drinking alcohol and experiencing hangovers can “induce anxiety and increase stress.”
For someone dealing with depression, whether diagnosed or not, this can lead to relying on self-medicating to try and find that “happy” feeling sometimes associated with the early stages of drinking. What ends up happening is the person seeks that happiness more and more, so drinks more and more, whether in one day/night or on a continual basis.
When other drugs and substances come into the mix, the outcomes change slightly, although the one common factor is they make depression worse. It just changes how exactly the body is affected.
For instance, if someone with depression is self-medicating with cocaine or amphetamines, like Adderall, the short-term euphoria they may feel has a large downside. Studies show using cocaine can actually make their depression worse.
Some describe the effects of using cocaine this way: “It’s the most horrible depression I ever got. The only thing to do is more coke, but it doesn’t help…”, showcasing exactly how trying to self-medicate for depression can lead to huge problems with both drug use and depression.
Has Self-Medication Turned Into Addiction?
Maybe you or someone you know started using alcohol or drugs to deal with stress, trauma, depression, or some combination of them all. The cycle of reacting to negative thoughts or emotions by self-medicating can lead to your body relying on those behaviors, or even seeking out the substance when it feels even the beginning of stress, sadness, and so on.
Since addiction is defined as “compulsive substance use despite harmful consequences by the American Psychiatric Association, it may be hard to tell if self-medication has crossed that line into addiction.
Struggling to maintain daily routines and failing to accomplish basic necessities, like grocery shopping or basic hygiene may be signs of addiction. Not being able to stop thinking about the next time you can drink or use a drug may also indicate your self-medication has turned into an addiction.
If the amount of time spent self-medicating starts to exceed the time you aren’t, you may need to reach out to a licensed physician or psychotherapist.
Turning Point specializes in dual diagnosis, so we’re uniquely set up to not only help with substance use but any co-occurring mental or emotional problem that might be there. And as you just read, self-medication is often happening because of another problem. We know you have it in you to change your life, and the ability to work through the hard times. We’d love to talk with you about how we can help. Give us a call at (888) 956-6369 if you or someone you know needs help.
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Is self-medicating bad?
Self-medicating can lead to addiction. Usually, when someone is self-medicating they’re making a deeper problem feel like it’s gone away, but it’s not a real solution, and the problem is still there, waiting to come back. That’s when self-medication becomes a problem because you then use that short-term “solution” again.
Can you self medicate anxiety?
People self-medicate for a lot of different reasons, and anxiety is definitely one of them. But again, that’s not a solution, it’s more like ignoring the problem, or just forgetting about it for a little, like putting a newspaper over some spilled food, rather than cleaning it up.
What does it mean to self medicate for mental illness?
It means to use something other than official, medical treatment to deal with mental illness. If someone is drinking or using drugs — even a prescribed pain medication — in an unhealthy way to try and deal with their mental illness, they can be self-medicating to try and find normalcy, rather than getting an official diagnosis and professional help.
What are the causes and effects of self-medicating?
Causes can range widely, depending on each person, but the common ones are stress, anxiety, mental illness, and pain. It can be as simple as being scared to go into the public, or even just struggling to stay awake all day. Effects can also differ, not only depending on the person, but also on what substance they are using. Self-medicating can actually lead to worsening depression, anxiety, and mental illness, and the biggest possible effect is addiction.