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What Does “Self-Medicating” Mean?

Self-medicating is a behavior in which someone uses drugs, herbs, or other home remedies to self-administer treatment. They do so to reduce physical or psychological ailments without consulting a doctor first.

Why Do People Self-Medicate?

Edward Khantzian developed the self-medication hypothesis. This theory suggests that people self-medicate to relieve the symptoms/emotions they are experiencing. 

According to the Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health, some people use drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism to suppress overactive brain stress systems that produce negative emotions or feelings. This theory explains why someone living with social anxiety may choose to use alcohol for its calming and sedating effects.

Self-medication is a practice used around the world, especially in low-income communities. In some areas where adequate healthcare is neither affordable nor available, people rely on self-medicating to treat their ailments.

In one study of 360 participants, over 76% had a history of self-medication and 98.9% stored drugs at home. The most frequent diseases for self-medication were fatigue, weakness, anxiety disorders, and fever.

Although the exact reasons are particular to an individual’s situation, the common reasons for self-medicating include:

  • Perceiving self-medication as harmless
  • A history of disease
  • Suffering from chronic pain
  • Suffering from mental illness
  • Availability of medications at home
  • The cost of medical treatment, including doctor’s visits and medications
  • A lack of time to seek proper medical care
  • An unwillingness to seek professional help due to fear or anxiety
  • Hiding or denying a condition
  • Inefficient drugs used for treatments in the past
  • Fear of side effects from medications

Individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are more likely to use substances to self-medicate. Approximately 20% of individuals with PTSD used substances to relieve their symptoms, including depression and anxiety.

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Commonly Used Substances for Self-Medication

The most used self-medicating substances are over-the-counter drugs and dietary supplements. They do not require a doctor’s prescription to obtain and can be found in supermarkets and convenience stores.

Other harmful options or indulgences used to self-medicate include:

  • Alcohol — a common substance used to self-medicate because of the availability and general acceptance of alcohol use. Alcohol can temporarily relieve depression and anxiety. However, it can lead to dependence and can worsen depression and anxiety when used regularly.
  • Nicotine —a highly-addictive chemical found in tobacco that causes both stimulant and sedative effects. The self-medicating effects of nicotine use include an increase in focus and alertness and a feeling of increased relaxation. Nicotine changes the brain’s chemicals and causes a wide range of side effects on the body’s organs and symptoms.
  • Opiates or opioids — while these can provide a temporary euphoric sensation or “high,” abuse of these substances is hazardous and can lead to serious injury or death from overdose. Commonly used opioids include codeine, morphine, heroin, oxycodone, and hydrocodone.
  • Marijuana — also known as cannabis or weed, it is the most widely used substance among people with depression. Weed can actually worsen depression symptoms when used in excess.
  • Stimulants —these highly addictive drugs increase activity in the body. Commonly used stimulants include cocaine, amphetamines, and methamphetamine. Some amphetamines, such as Adderall, are prescribed for the management of some medical conditions. Stimulant misuse can cause significant damage to various organ systems, especially the cardiovascular system, and can be fatal. 
  • Caffeine — another common substance used to self-medicate because of the availability and general acceptance of caffeine use. This commonly used substance can cause positive reactions, including a boost in mood and focus. When overused, it can cause increased feelings of depression and anxiety.
  • Food — the terms “emotional eating,” “binge eating,” or “comfort eating” are commonly used to describe the practice of self-medicating with food. Self-medicating with food may temporarily relieve stress in people who are not clinically depressed. However, it can cause decreased self-esteem, lead to an eating disorder, and cause unhealthy weight gain.
  • Prescription medications — individuals can also self-medicate by using medicines prescribed to them, but at a different dosage or frequency than directed by their doctor. Commonly misused prescription medications include anti-anxiety medication like Xanax or Klonopin.

Difference Between Substance Abuse and Self-Medicating

Self-medicating is when someone uses alcohol or drugs to manage symptoms of a mental health condition or a physical health issue. Substance abuse is when someone uses alcohol or drugs out of a compulsive physiological need, characterized by tolerance and withdrawal symptoms.

Frequent self-medicating can lead to substance abuse. Many people with substance use disorders developed the disorder by self-medicating for a health issue. In a study of 25,000 patients who were misusing drugs, over 87% suffered from chronic pain, and more than half used drugs specifically to self-medicate their pain.

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Signs You or Someone You Know is Self-Medicating

Identifying signs of self-medicating can help a person decide to undergo alcohol addiction treatment. It can also put a stop to a habit that has the potential to destroy his or her life.

Individuals with mental health issues often use alcohol to cope with everyday stress and pressures. Considering how the brain develops an increasing tolerance to alcohol, addiction can quickly set in.

Signs of self-medication typically include:

  • Drinking first thing in the morning
  • Drinking on the job
  • Excessive drinking during family functions
  • Drinking when stressed
  • Drinking to drown difficult emotions
  • A dependence on alcohol to cope with daily life

Risks of Self-Medicating 

Self-medicating comes with many inherent risks as individuals who self-medicate are only treating the symptoms rather than the source of their problem. Many people don’t accurately diagnose their medical issues. And even when the issue is correctly diagnosed, they don’t know the right therapy or medication to use and the right amount. Because of this, self-medicating can lead to many serious health consequences.

The potential risks of self-medicating include:

  • Taking an incorrect or excessive dosage
  • Excessively prolonged use
  • Failure to recognize or report adverse reactions
  • Developing resistance to microorganisms in the body that cause illness
  • Developing a drug addiction or abuse
  • Worsening depression
  • Developing allergies or skin problems
  • Developing hypersensitivity
  • Masking symptoms of serious illnesses
  • Harmful interactions with other medications or food
  • Accidental overdose and death

Self-medicating increases the risk of addiction and worsens the user’s psychological state, which may cause them to take more of the drug and develop a dependence. Self-medication with drugs amongst individuals with mood disorders, such as depression or bipolar disorder, is more likely to lead to addiction. Over 25% of individuals with a substance use disorder (SUD) developed the disease through self-medication.

Treatment for Substance Use Disorder (SUD)

Addiction is a complex disease that drives a person to keep using drugs or alcohol despite the negative consequences.

Many options have successfully treated drug addiction, including behavioral counseling, medication, and long-term follow up to prevent relapse.

Individuals with a substance use disorder (SUD) should also receive treatment for co-occurring disorders because they negatively impact substance use issues.

No single treatment is right for everyone. Treatment plans should be reviewed often and customized to fit each patient’s changing needs.

To find the best treatment for you or your loved one’s substance use disorder, speak with an addiction specialist today.

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“Signs That You're Self-Medicating with Alcohol and When to Consider Alcohol Addiction Treatment.” Alcoholics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, 23 Feb. 2016,

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