Life can be full of challenges, situations, feelings, and circumstances we want to ignore, diminish, or escape from. But how we deal with those events and feelings can be the difference between substance abuse and healthy wellbeing. Drinking, smoking marijuana, or using prescription medication may be socially acceptable responses to life stress, but as “normal” as these responses may seem, using substances to try to make ourselves feel better —even for a short period of time — isn’t healthy. It’s self-medication, a harmful behavior pattern that can lead to addiction and emotional, social, interpersonal, and physical issues.
What Is Self-Medication?
Self-medication is exactly what the term sounds like: trying to treat our challenges by indulging in things that can temporarily help us feel better when we’re experiencing a challenging situation. Most people self-medicate by indulging in one or a combination of the following:
- Legal substances such as food, alcohol, nicotine, or caffeine
- Controlled substances such as prescription medications like opioids
- Illegal substances such as methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, or ecstasy
Here at Soba Recovery, we define self-medication as using drugs or alcohol to manage a difficult situation. Many people turn to self-medication because they feel powerless or don’t know how to cope with the challenge they’re facing. Even though the situations and events that trigger self-medication can vary from person to person, most people self-medicate because they’re experiencing some type of physical, emotional, or psychological pain.
Reasons For Self-Medication
Feeling down, worried, and out of sorts is a natural response to life’s struggles and setbacks. But when these feelings start to interfere with their daily lives, people might feel tempted to cope with the distress on their own. Unfortunately, this often looks like reaching for an alcoholic drink, popping a pill, or smoking or snorting an illegal substance.
Many people self-medicate when they’re trying to:
Numb Uncomfortable Feelings
Uncomfortable feelings are a part of life, but living with guilt, loneliness, sadness, fear, and hopelessness can be extremely frustrating. Dealing with unresolved trauma and emotional, verbal, or sexual abuse can also evoke uncomfortable and distressing feelings. Other distressing emotions can include:
- Feeling suffocated
- Feeling ruined
- Fear and uncertainty
Oftentimes, these emotions can feel overwhelming and impossible to endure, making people want to numb the pain. When individuals feel this way, they might find themselves trying to drink their discomfort away or take prescription painkillers to desensitize their feelings. Unfortunately, self-medicating with addictive substances can only temporarily numb uncomfortable feelings. Typically, this compels people to turn to drugs and alcohol more often, which can increase their risk for addiction.
Experience Temporary Relief From Stress and Struggle
People also feel tempted to self-medicate when they’re looking to escape day-to-day struggles. Family problems, challenges at work, parenting woes, and financial and legal problems can make most individuals want to escape the stresses of daily life. But most people can’t simply pack a bag and leave their families, jobs, home, and town. So they turn to addictive substances as a temporary reprieve from their situation. They might not even care that the relief is temporary as long as they don’t have to deal with the stress facing them at the moment.
Often, self-medication starts with one drink, one pill, one hit, or one dose. For a brief moment, the struggle and stress seem to fade. That’s because drugs and alcohol release dopamine, a “feel good” chemical that produces a short-lived “high” that replaces the stress they were once experiencing. The obvious, although harmful, conclusion is that if one drink, pill, or hit helps, more will help even more. Left uncontrolled, this expectation can create a cycle of substance abuse and plant the seeds of addiction.
The struggles that trigger stress can be different for everyone, but some of the most common stressors people want to escape from include:
- Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
- Unexpected injury
- Natural disaster
- Chronic illness
- Death of a loved one or friend
- Financial obligations
- Unemployment or losing a job
- Taking care of a sick family member
Cope With Mental Health Challenges
Many people living with mental health challenges deal with debilitating and distressing emotions on a daily basis. In some cases, they may even feel like they live in an inescapable cycle of depression or anxiety. Overwhelmed with symptoms such as night terrors, hallucinations, paranoia, traumatizing flashbacks, unwanted thoughts, delusions, restlessness, discontent, hopelessness, insomnia, and fear, these individuals often try to “treat” their condition with substances. Unfortunately, alcohol and drugs tend to exacerbate mental health symptoms, causing individuals to feel worse than they did in the first place.
Even though any kind of mental health challenge can lead to self-medication, individuals living with the following mental health conditions can be especially vulnerable:
- Bipolar disorder
- Anxiety disorders
- Borderline personality disorder
- Major depressive disorder
- Seasonal affective disorder
- Obsessive compulsive disorder
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
- Posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD
Fill An Emotional Void
Despite our individual differences, most people want and need to feel a sense of self-worth and support. Individuals lacking self-confidence and social support often turn to drugs and alcohol to fill these emotional voids. Some individuals with low self-esteem drink to feel courageous. Other individuals use stimulants such as methamphetamine and cocaine to feel energetic and excited about life when in reality, they feel lonely, depressed, neglected, or isolated from friends and family. Sadly, continued use of drugs and alcohol may push their loved ones further away, which often leads them to use more addictive substances.
Deal With Grief
Even though grief is a natural part of life, losing a close friend or family member often stirs up emotions that feel anything but natural. Dealing with such strong but difficult emotions can, especially without the help of a therapist, make people try to self-medicate their sadness with drugs or alcohol. Oftentimes, individuals feel like drinking and using drugs is the only option they have to feel something other than grief and pain.
To Experience Pleasure
Most people feel good after watching a movie, listening to music, exercising, or spending time with friends or family. But some individuals have a hard time feeling good or experiencing pleasure during difficult moments in their lives. When this happens, they may turn to drugs or alcohol. When drugs and alcohol enter the body and interact with the brain, they can produce pleasurable, euphoric feelings. Sadly, those good feelings don’t last long, leaving individuals feeling worse than they did before they used the substances.
Living with a chronic physical illness can also cause some individuals to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. Some individuals may use opioids or prescription painkillers to escape the physical pain of their condition. Others may drink alcohol to avoid the stress of it all. Some of the most common physical conditions associated with self-medication include:
- Dementia and Alzheimer’s
- Sickle cell disease
- Sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV, AIDS, herpes, or gonorrhea
- Autoimmune disorders such as lupus, vasculitis, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis
Signs of Self-Medication
Even though many people self-medicate, the habit isn’t always easy to identify. More often than not, self-medication can look and feel like ordinary life. After all, drinking alcohol is a socially acceptable aspect of American culture, many people take prescription medication, and several states have legalized marijuana. Motivation, however, remains one of the clearest ways to identify self-medicating habits.
To understand whether or not people are self-medicating, you need to examine and analyze their motives. Is your friend drinking alcohol at a wedding to celebrate a momentous occasion or because they’re lonely? Does your loved one take pain pills because their back hurts or because they’ve been struggling emotionally? Does your spouse drink to socialize with friends or to improve their mood or feel less anxious?
Signs of self-medication can vary, but people may be using alcohol or drugs as a way of coping with difficulties if they:
- Turn to substances when they feel anxious, stressed, or depressed. Most people have used food, caffeine, nicotine, sugar, drugs, or alcohol to cope with bad news at some point in their life. However, regularly drinking or using drugs to cope with stress, feel better, or relieve boredom can be a sign of self-medication.
- Experienced a triggering event and have increased their alcohol use or started using drugs. Losing a job or experiencing a separation, divorce, death, or sudden financial trouble can send anyone into a tailspin. When people attempt to self-medicate these troubles, they tend to drink more or start abusing prescription medications.
- Feel worse after drinking or getting high. People self-medicate to feel better. Sadly, the relief they receive is short-lived. Once the quick fix wears off, most people tend to feel worse than they did before self-medicating. Most people who continue to medicate experience:
- A decline in their physical health and an increase in illness
- Sudden and erratic mood changes
- Mental health challenges such as depression, paranoia, and anxiety
- Worry when they can’t get drunk or high. Remember, self-medicating is an attempt to feel better. When people who use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate don’t have access to these substances, they believe that they won’t be able to “feel better.” This also means that they’ll have to deal with the very things they’ve been trying to avoid. This typically leads to panic, anxiety, and restlessness. This paranoia can also lead to irritability and anger.
- Notice their problems keep multiplying. At first, self-medicating may seem like the perfect plan. But after a while, people who self-medicate with drugs and alcohol may realize that what started off as one problem has now grown. Self medicating can turn grief into a health and financial problem. Trying to fill an emotional void can morph into even more relationship problems as well as mental health challenges. Instead of fixing the issue, self-medicating almost always creates new problems.
- Need to self-medicate more frequently to gain relief. As people self-medicate, their tolerance for drugs and alcohol increases. This means that they’ll need to self-medicate more often and consume more of the substances to gain the same amount of relief they initially received. Sadly, as their tolerance increases, so does their risk of addiction.
No matter how helpful self-medication might seem, using drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism is a dangerous and harmful habit.
Dangers of Self-Medication
Self-medicating can and often does create a range of problems. In addition to increasing the risk of addiction, self-medication can:
- Make symptoms worse. Using drugs and alcohol can cause physical, emotional, social, financial, and legal problems. That’s why relying on these drugs to feel better usually ends up making self-medicating individuals feel worse.
- Trigger new mental health challenges. People who self-medicate to deal with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia are already vulnerable to mental health issues. Sadly, drugs and alcohol can lead to the development of new mental health challenges. Opioids, for example, may help individuals feel euphoric at first but are commonly associated with depression. Marijuana may help people relax but can lead to psychosis, hallucinations, and paranoia.
- Interferes with prescription medication, which can lead to unpleasant side effects. Using drugs and alcohol can interact with other medications people take. This can cause negative side effects such as:
- Difficulty breathing
- Heart attacks
- Low or high blood pressure
- Memory trouble
- Prevent individuals from seeking and getting the help they need. Most people who self-medicate believe that they are fixing their problems. As long as using drugs or alcohol seems to help them fix their challenges, they won’t seek any other kind of help. Unfortunately, this prevents them from getting the professional help they actually need. Since self-medication only works for a short period of time, the problem resurfaces, trapping individuals in a dangerous, destructive cycle.
Luckily, individuals can learn how to stop self-medicating. Here’s how.
How To Stop Self-Medicating
Whether individuals are drinking, using drugs, or both, they won’t stop self-medicating until they admit they do, in fact, use substances to manage difficult moments. They need to be honest with themselves and with those closest to them. When they are, they can start replacing self-medicating habits with healthy coping strategies.
There are several ways to stop self-medicating, but some of the most common strategies include:
- Therapy. Individuals who self-medicate their moods and emotions tend to think of substances like drugs and alcohol as useful and helpful. Some people, for example, may think of alcohol as a way to relax or sleep restfully. Alcohol can help slow activity in the central nervous system and help people fall asleep faster, but alcohol can also aggravate individuals’ breathing and prevent them from getting restorative REM sleep. Therapy can help change individuals’ inaccurate views and thoughts about substances. According to cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, changed thoughts can lead to changed behavior. Therapy can also help people work through the issues that triggered self-medication in the first place and teach them new, healthier ways of coping.
- Outpatient treatment. Enrolling in a professional outpatient program can help individuals overcome substance abuse, mental health, and emotional challenges while living at home. These flexible treatment programs allow individuals to work and go to school during the day and receive clinical support and therapy at night. Here at Soba Recovery, we offer 2 tiers of outpatient treatment: standard and intensive.
- Inpatient Treatment. Professional inpatient treatment can also help individuals overcome substance abuse, mental health, and emotional challenges. These programs require individuals to live onsite at the facility while they recover. Inpatient programs are highly structured and scheduled and include detoxification and behavioral therapy.
- Peer support groups. Most people struggling with self-medication feel alone and powerless. Peer support groups can surround them with people who have successfully overcome similar life challenges. This can help boost individuals’ self-esteem, making them less likely to turn to drugs or alcohol. Addiction peer support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) can help individuals overcome substance abuse challenges.
- Learn new coping strategies. Learning healthy ways of coping with your moods, emotions, and circumstances can help you stop self-medicating. Some healthier ways of coping with difficulties include:
- Taking a walk
- Guided imagery and visualization
- Exercise and yoga
- Deep breathing
- Journaling your thoughts and feelings
- Meditation and mindfulness
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Asking a friend or family member for support
- Reframing your thoughts about the situation
Say Goodbye to Self-Medication
Self-medicating occurs when we use drugs or alcohol to temporarily deal with life challenges and difficulties. It’s a dangerous, destructive habit that often leads to addiction. Luckily, individuals can learn to stop self-medicating by:
- Realizing their own self-medicating habits
- Changing their beliefs and thoughts about substances and self-medication
- Finding healthier ways to cope such as therapy, meditation, exercise, or journaling
- Enrolling in a professional addiction and mental health treatment program
Helping You Handle Life’s Challenges The Healthy Way
At Soba Recovery, we know that life is full of challenges. Often, those challenges can knock the wind out of our sails and send us spiraling. But you don’t have to spiral out of control. We can help turn that unexpected spiral into a somersault. If you have spiraled out of control, we can help you regain what you’ve lost. Our individualized treatment plans can help you overcome addiction and effectively handle life’s challenges. Visit our website or contact us to learn more.