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What Is Self Medicating?

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Everyone likes to feel good. When you aren’t feeling your best, it’s natural to engage in activities that make you feel better. Sometimes these activities are healthy and productive, like exercise or spending quality time with family and friends. Unfortunately, there are self medicating practices that are not healthy and productive. The most problematic include drug and alcohol abuse.

People are turning to drugs and alcohol as a form of self-medication at higher rates. This often due to underlying mental health issues such as depression, stress, or anxiety. People who suffer from these conditions may turn to substance abuse to lessen their symptoms. When used as a coping mechanism, self medicating can further complicate mental illness and even physical dependence on the substances being abused. If you are struggling with mental health issues and substance abuse, it’s important to get professional help to recover. Letting co-occurring mental health disorders and drug or alcohol abuse get worse makes it even harder to overcome these issues in the future.

What Is Self Medicating?

What Is Self Medicating?

At its most basic, self medicating is any attempt to deal with painful, difficult, or stressful events or situations in life. Self medicating can start in a very benign way. Maybe your routine after a hard day at work is to sit down in front of the TV and have a beer. That may not seem dangerous, but over time that one beer can turn into a lot more. You may start to incorporate other substances like marijuanaprescription drugs, or illegal recreational drugs like cocaine or heroin as your need to feel better isn’t satisfied by only alcohol any longer.

Other reasons someone might self medicate include:

  • As a way to reduce negative feelings like depression, anxiety, or fear
  • To reduce symptoms of mental illness like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia
  • To boost energy or alertness with stimulants like Adderall or cocaine
  • Using opioids or benzodiazepines to relax and promote sleep.
  • As a way to loosen up or lessen social anxiety in certain situations.

Studies have also shown that traumatic events can cause someone to self medicate. Natural disasters, accidents, mass violence, and time in the military are just some events that can be traumatic for people. Self medication is a coping mechanism.

What Do People Use to Self Medicate?

Substances like alcohol are commonly used for self medicating because they are widely available, inexpensive, and work to numb the feelings someone is trying to escape. Just as someone may use alcohol in social situations to “loosen up” or have more fun, others use it to avoid facing things that make them sad, uncomfortable, or angry.

The issue is that while these substances may ease feelings of fear or depression or anxiety in the short term, the abuse can make them worse as time passes. It’s creating a new problem to address an old one, meaning now you have two issues to deal with instead of just one.

There are forms of self medicating that don’t involve drugs or alcohol. Some may turn to food as comfort in the form of emotional eating. That can unfortunately open the door for eating disorders or weight issues. Caffeine is another substance people use to boost their energy and alertness when they’re tired or stressed.

Nicotine can also be used to self medicate. Tobacco products like cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, and vapes all contain the chemical nicotine. People use it as a form of stress relief, but it’s a highly addictive substance. Nicotine addictions are a challenge to overcome for many.

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Is Self Medicating the Same as Addiction?

No, self medicating is not the same thing as addiction. Someone who struggles with addiction may not have developed their issue via self medicating. But someone who self medicates is at a higher risk to develop addiction in the future.

Is Self Medicating Dangerous?

Self medicating can be very dangerous. The first issue is that it involves a person diagnosing themselves. Identifying a mental health issue or substance abuse disorder isn’t easy. It can take the help and guidance of a certified therapist to ensure a diagnosis is the correct one. Seeing a professional is always the better course of action when it comes to identifying the issues that are holding you back. If you incorrectly diagnose yourself, it can open the door for more problems in the future, as you are not getting the professional help you need.

Self medicating with substances is especially dangerous because you could mix alcohol and drugs. Many people don’t understand the dangers that arise when substances are combined and abused. Someone abusing opioids along with alcohol, for example, runs the risk of serious health issues like depressed breathing, organ damage, and even overdose and death.

The Connection Between Addiction, Self Medicating, and Co-Occurring Disorders

Many people don’t view their self medicating as an issue. They’re fully capable of fulfilling responsibilities like work, school, and family obligations. But the dangers of self medicating are well documented. When someone uses drugs or alcohol, it causes physical changes to the brain and central nervous system. This can deteriorate the mind’s ability to practice self-control or manage stress. That can lead to worse addiction problems in the future.

Using alcohol or drugs can worsen symptoms of depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, social anxiety, and mood disorders. This can cause you to self medicate with drugs and alcohol even more. It’s a dangerous cycle that makes symptoms worse if not stopped as soon as possible. When you do decide to get help, you may face withdrawal symptoms from drinking or using drugs. Substance abuse disorder treatment can help manage those symptoms so you can focus your energy on recovery.

Addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders need to be treated at the same time as a dual diagnosis. This is the only way treatment can be successful. Treating addiction but not an anxiety disorder, for example, does not address the underlying reason you are abusing drugs and alcohol. 

Mental health and substance abuse do not discriminate by gender, age, race, income level, or any other socio-economic status or demographic. Anyone can fall victim to the pitfalls of co-occurring addiction and mental health issues. That’s why it’s important to get help as soon as possible.

Treatment for dual diagnosis must address both conditions at the same time. This helps promote long-term recovery. It is important to note that many people who struggle with addiction also suffer from mental health problems, making it essential that they receive comprehensive treatment that properly addresses both issues. Dual diagnosis treatment looks at how the two disorders interact with each other. It aims to identify triggers and provide strategies for coping with them.  

Footprints to Recovery offers treatment programs that address the underlying conditions that lead to self medicating, whether you are doing so with a substance use disorder or something else. There are multiple levels of care at Footprints to Recovery which can be essential in recovering from addiction or another mental health issue that causes you to self medicate. Those levels of care include:

These levels of care all offer comprehensive treatment tailored to people who want to stop self medicating. You will engage in treatments like individual therapygroup therapy; and holistic therapies like acupuncture, meditation, and yoga. You’ll have life skills training, learn coping mechanisms, and more. Footprints to Recovery also utilizes evidence-based treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) to help on your journey to being whole.

The team at Footprints to Recovery is ready to help anyone in need. Contact us today for a consultation with an addiction treatment counselor and learn more about taking the right steps to a better life.

Questions about treatment options?

Our admissions team is available 24/7 to listen to your story and help you get started with the next steps.

Jenna Richer
Medically Reviewed by Jenna Richer, MSW, LCSW
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