What Does it Mean to Self-Medicate?

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When someone self-medicates, they use drugs, alcohol, food, or other substances to treat their health problems without input from a doctor. This isn’t always a harmful practice, depending on the condition and the substance used for self-medicating.

Self-Medicate

However, people use harmful substances to treat or “cure” serious health problems in many cases. This is the case when someone uses alcohol or illicit drugs to ease the symptoms of a mental health disorder. 

Why Do People Self-Medicate?

People self-medicate for various reasons. Some cannot afford the care they need to treat a mental illness or other medical issue properly. In addition to the expense, some people prefer not to work with a doctor for privacy reasons or because they think seeking mental health treatment is a sign of weakness.

Others prefer a seemingly simple solution. If they can drink or use drugs to feel better, why bother with a treatment program requiring a great deal of effort?

The important thing to remember is that regardless of why someone chooses to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, it is only ever a temporary solution. In most cases, it leads to more problems and deteriorating physical health. Self-medicating serious illnesses with drugs or alcohol only makes the problem worse. 

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Types of Substances People Self-Medicate With 

There are many substances with which people choose to self-medicate. For example:

Food

Eating to ease negative emotions is self-medicating with food. People who do this eat, regular or large amounts, to comfort their feelings. They temporarily reduce their stress, sadness, or anger, but long-term they exacerbate the problem. Self-medicating with food leads to decreased self-esteem, worsened depression, and physical health problems.

Alcohol

Drinking wine, beer, or hard liquor to ease negative feelings is self-medicating with alcohol. Anyone who has had even a drink or two understands that alcohol use eases anxiety and makes you feel better temporarily. This makes it a tempting substance to turn to when things are difficult in life.

However, using alcohol long-term to self-medicate leads to a heightened risk of developing a substance use disorder. People use alcohol to self-medicate when dealing with anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, grief, and a variety of other issues. 

Over time, alcohol use only negatively affects health, but it can also lead to serious legal consequences, difficulty in relationships, and struggles with school or work.

Psychostimulants

Using cocaine or amphetamines to ease negative emotions is self-medicating with psychostimulant drugs. These drugs trigger feelings of euphoria, temporarily easing the symptoms of depression and other emotions.

Long-term, though, it puts users at risk of depression. These drugs also pose a risk of heart failure, stroke, and death. And since they are illegal, users face legal consequences if caught with these drugs.

Cannabis

Along with alcohol, cannabis (marijuana) is one of the most widely used substances for self-medicating. Although there is some evidence that medically monitored cannabis use offers medical benefits, many people use this substance without the guidance of a doctor. Used improperly, cannabis worsens many mental health conditions.

Depending on where it’s used, getting caught with cannabis can lead to legal consequences.

Opiates and Opioids

Opioid and opiate misuse is one of the most common issues in the world today. This is partly due to the fact that some of these drugs are prescribed by doctors to treat pain temporarily. 

This category of drugs includes codeine, morphine, methadone, heroin, and oxycodone. Some of these drugs are available via a prescription, while others are illegal. They are all highly addictive substances.

Over time, people using opiates or opioids to self-medicate develop depression and various physical health problems. 

Who is at Risk of Self-Medicating?

Anyone dealing with intense negative emotions is at risk of self-medicating. Everyone occasionally has negative emotions, but in some cases, these emotions feel overwhelming. And unfortunately, some people choose to cope with their situation by using drugs or alcohol instead of seeking treatment.

People without the financial means to seek proper medical treatment for mental health issues have a higher risk of self-medicating.

Additionally, people with certain medical conditions have a higher risk of self-medicating. For example, many people with mood and anxiety disorders, including depression and bipolar disorder, turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate.

Signs that Someone is Self-Medicating

One of the biggest challenges of helping those who self-medicate is that it can be difficult to determine if someone is using drugs or alcohol to self-medicate. 

Self-medication is not the only reason people use drugs or alcohol. This is the case when it comes to alcohol, legal marijuana, or food. These substances are used recontionally, so using them doesn't always indicate a problem.

Signs someone might be self-medicating include:

  • They turn to a substance when feeling stressed, anxious, or depressed
  • Use of their substance of choice makes them feel worse and serve as only temporary fixes
  • More and more of a substance is needed for them to gain relief
  • Their negative emotions worsen 
  • They experience distress when they cannot gain access to their substance of choice
  • Friends and family are concerned about their substance use

Risks of Self-Medicating With Drugs or Alcohol 

Self-medicating usually offers only temporary relief. Symptoms return as soon as the immediate effects wear off. When drugs, alcohol, or other substances are misused to self-medicate, it’s a downright unhealthy and potentially dangerous approach.

Over time, self-medicating with drugs and alcohol causes a cycle of substance use and exacerbated mental health issues. Ongoing misuse of substances causes you to develop a tolerance that leads to needing more and more of a substance to achieve the same effects. This puts many people at risk of overdose and other negative health issues. 

Symptoms of Substance Use Disorder (SUD)

Recognizing the symptoms of substance use disorder helps you determine whether you or a loved one is self-medicating. Misuse and addiction symptoms include:

  • Needing to use a substance regularly – daily or multiple times per day
  • Experiencing an intense urge for the substance to block out negative emotions
  • Needing more and more of the substance to experience the same effects
  • Keeping a supply of the substance on hand, even if it requires significant financial sacrifice or risk
  • Spending more on the substance than one can afford
  • Failing to meet obligations and responsibilities to use the substance
  • Avoiding activities because the substance cannot be used
  • Continuing use of the substance despite negative consequences
  • Engaging in behavior that would not occur without the substance, sometimes to obtain more of the substance
  • Engaging in risky behaviors while under the influence of the substance
  • Constant focus on using the substance
  • Attempting to stop using the substance without success
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when the substance is not in use

Treatment Options for Substance Use Disorder (SUD)

Treatment is available for substance use disorder (SUD) driven by self-medicating behavior. In addition to treating an addiction to a substance, it is just as important to treat the root cause of the addiction. Anyone who has a dual diagnosis needs treatment for all of their medical issues. 

What emotions are you trying to self-medicate? Successful treatment requires the underlying health condition to be addressed, as well.

The first stage of addiction that arises from self-medicating is detox. Once that phase is complete, the person moves onto learning how to change their behavior and treat their problematic emotions without self-medicating. This treatment is available on an inpatient or outpatient basis. Family and individual counseling are also helpful.

Once the initial phases of treatment are complete, people with substance use disorder often benefit from 12-step or other addiction maintenance programs.

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Resources +

Me, Ruiz. “Risks of Self-Medication Practices.” Current Drug Safety, 1 Oct. 2010, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20615179/.

Khantzian, E J. “The Self-Medication Hypothesis of Substance Use Disorders: A Reconsideration and Recent Applications.” Harvard Review of Psychiatry, vol. 4, no. 5, 1997, pp. 231–44, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9385000, 10.3109/10673229709030550.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Understanding Drug Use and Addiction.” Drugabuse.gov, June 2018, https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/understanding-drug-use-addiction.

Mayo Clinic. “Drug Addiction (Substance Use Disorder) - Symptoms and Causes.” Mayo Clinic, 26 Oct. 2017, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/drug-addiction/symptoms-causes/syc-20365112.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “SAMHSA - Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.” samhsa.gov, 2000, https://www.samhsa.gov/.

“Are You Self Medicating Your Emotional Stress with Food?” HuffPost, 27 Apr. 2010, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/are-you-self-medicating-y_b_476399.

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