Self-medicating is the wrongful use of drugs, alcohol, or any other substance in an attempt to manage the troubling symptoms of a mental health disorder or other illness.
Although many people who self-medicate may have been diagnosed with a health condition like cancer, an injury, a mental illness, or chronic pain, a formal diagnosis is not required.
It is not easy to tell when a person is self-medicating. This is because the behavior that would typically indicate something is wrong is socially acceptable in many cultures. For example, prescription drugs are found in most bathroom closets, and even recreational drugs like cannabis are now legal.
Consequently, determining whether you (or someone else) are self-medicating requires careful examination of the motives for (and consequences of) consuming a specific drug or engaging in a particular activity.
Some of the most common signs of self-medication include:
The person turns to drugs or alcohol whenever they're feeling stressed, anxious or depressed. It is usual for people to use substances to cope with unusually stressful events, such as losing a job or a loved one.
However, if the habit is regular (i.e., the individual is regularly drinking to cope with stress, improve how they feel, or relieve boredom), they are likely self-medicating.
Self-medicated drugs are usually temporary solutions. Once their effects wear off, the person relying on them is likely to feel even worse. The habit will affect sleep patterns, energy levels, and immune response, leaving the user susceptible to illness.
It also negatively impacts mood and emotional well-being, as the users trap themselves in a downward spiral of increased substance abuse.
Users will slowly increase their intake of "medication" as their tolerance grows. This trend will likely be accompanied by the health effects of consuming excessive amounts of the substance.
The more the individual self-medicates, the more problems it will create in their personal and professional lives.
For example, a person might start drinking to cope with stress, but increased alcohol use will lead to social, medical, and financial challenges.3 People around the self-medicating person will also start to express concern about their behavior.
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Risk factors for self-medication include:
Depression is a mood disorder that is best described as prolonged feelings of loss, sadness, or anger. These feelings are strong enough to interfere with a person's daily routine.
Depressed people will often resort to substances like alcohol in an attempt to cope with their condition.3 They consider alcohol's sedative effects to be an effective treatment for their persistent feelings of sadness.
Bipolar disorder is categorized into four categories: bipolar I, bipolar II, cyclothymic disorder, and bipolar disorder due to a medical or substance use disorder.
People with bipolar I disorder experience one or more manic episodes followed by pronounced depressive or hypomanic episodes (a psychological state characterized by euphoria and persistent lack of inhibition).
People with bipolar II disorder have one or more depressive episodes followed by a hypomanic episode. It is not unusual for them to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs since these substances alleviate depressive and manic episodes.1
Schizophrenia is a severe mental disorder in which people have abnormal perceptions of reality. It may result in delusions, hallucinations, and disordered behavior or thought patterns that affect daily functioning.
People with schizophrenia engage in self-medication as a way to alleviate the feelings of depression or anxiety caused by living with such a severe mental illness.
Studies show that between 25 and 75 percent of people who have experienced abuse or violent trauma self-medicate with alcohol.2
Abuse generally leads to post-traumatic stress disorder, which in turn encourages destructive tendencies. Individuals who have survived traumatizing emotional, mental, and physical encounters may not seek professional help and resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as partying, drinking, or narcotics.
People may self-medicate for the following reasons:
Childhood abuse subjects the brain to significant amounts of stress that hinder proper development. The psychological effects of sustained abuse cause neurological changes that eventually leave an individual vulnerable to substance use disorders like self-medication later in life.
Studies have shown, for example, that traumatized children are more likely to be alcoholics, drug addicts, or have eating disorders.5 A lot of this hurt results from loneliness, relational isolation, and trauma, as already discussed.
Psychological pain is not always visible, but it is an enduring and significant source of distress. Self-medicating helps such individuals deal with the pain.
Self-medication rates tend to increase with the incidence of mental health problems like bipolar disorders, anxiety, depression, and many others. Self-medication helps people cope with the symptoms associated with their respective illnesses.
The most common substances used to self-medicate include:
People with mental health illnesses may resort to psychostimulants like amphetamines for feelings of euphoria. Unfortunately, these substances are highly addictive and can be fatal when used for recreational purposes.
Alcohol can temporarily alleviate the symptoms of anxiety and depression when consumed in moderate amounts. It can make a person more social and sociable and make them feel that everything is fine.
However, alcohol abuse leads to addiction, which eventually worsens the user's problem. Recovering from alcoholism can be a complex process. In some cases, it may last a lifetime.
Caffeine stimulates the nervous system and has antidepressant effects such as enhancing dopamine and serotonin levels. However, it can also heighten feelings of anxiety if consumed excessively.
People turn to marijuana as an effective remedy for problems like anxiety and generalized anxiety disorder. However, there isn’t enough scientific data to prove its efficacy. When marijuana is used as self-medication, it may provide immediate relief from undesirable symptoms.
However, this effect also reinforces its use, making a person dependent. There is also evidence that it may result in long-term memory loss and increase susceptibility to psychiatric disorders.
Opioids and opiates interact with the human body's nerve cells to reduce the intensity of pain. They include drugs like fentanyl and heroin, along with prescription medications like codeine, hydrocodone, and morphine.
Self-medicating with food, often referred to as binge eating or emotional eating, may limit stress in individuals who aren’t suffering from clinical depression. However, regularly using food in this manner can decrease self-esteem and amplify feelings of a lack of self-control. It also has a negative effect on physical health through unhealthy weight gain.
Some risks of self-medicating include:
Self-medication can lead to addiction.6 When someone self-medicates with alcohol or any other depressant, it increases their tolerance. This means they need more and more of it to achieve the desired therapeutic effects.
Long-term dependence on these substances can lead to or worsen depression, and cause breathing difficulties, irregular sleeping patterns, and sexual problems. It is not uncommon for users to develop anxiety, cravings, or panic whenever they are unable to obtain more of the substance.
Self-medication may also mask the presence of a more serious medical condition.6 In some situations, the symptoms that might encourage people to self-medicate, like headaches or back pain, are signs of a more serious medical condition.
In these cases, self-medicating may address the pain but not the root cause of the problem. It would enable a potentially life-threatening illness to become worse.
Addiction and self-medication generally arise from underlying or inadequately managed physical or mental health issues. Consequently, the most effective intervention for these people is a treatment plan that addresses both problems at the same time.4
These programs are most effective when they are managed by mental health professionals who know how to properly diagnose and manage co-occurring disorders
You don’t have to overcome your addiction alone. Professional guidance and support is available. Begin a life of recovery by reaching out to a specialist today.
(1) Bolton, J. M., Robinson, J., & Sareen, J. (2009). Self-medication of mood disorders with alcohol and drugs in the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. Journal of affective disorders, 115(3), 367–375. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2008.10.003.
(2) Chapter 7: Substance Abuse and Victimization. (n.d.). www.ncjrs.gov/ovc_archives/nvaa2000/G-7-SUB.htm.
(3) Crum, R. M., Mojtabai, R., Lazareck, S., Bolton, J. M., Robinson, J., Sareen, J., Green, K. M., Stuart, E. A., La Flair, L., Alvanzo, A. A., & Storr, C. L. (2013). A prospective assessment of reports of drinking to self-medicate mood symptoms with the incidence and persistence of alcohol dependence. JAMA Psychiatry, 70(7), 718–726. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.1098.
(4) NIDA. 2018, August 1. Comorbidity: Substance Use Disorders and Other Mental Illnesses DrugFacts. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/comorbidity-substance-use-disorders-other-mental-illnesses.
(5) Khoury, L., Tang, Y. L., Bradley, B., Cubells, J. F., & Ressler, K. J. (2010). Substance use, childhood traumatic experience, and posttraumatic stress disorder in an urban civilian population. Depression and anxiety, 27(12), 1077-1086. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3051362/.
(6) Ruiz M. E. (2010). Risks of self-medication practices. Current drug safety, 5(4), 315–323. https://doi.org/10.2174/157488610792245966.