Self-Medicating – Depression, Anxiety, and Stress

Self-medicating to manage mental health symptoms can lead to new or worsening problems. Learn more about self-medication and how to break the cycle.

Table of Contents

What is Self-Medicating?

Self-medicating is when someone uses substances such as drugs and alcohol, or food to cope with complex and challenging emotions. Some people use drugs and alcohol to reduce pain and discomfort, while others may do so to improve their mood and increase their focus.

Although using a substance to reduce the intensity and severity of physical or emotional symptoms may seem beneficial and effective in the short term, it can lead to worsening problems over time. Regularly using drugs, alcohol, food, or tobacco can eventually cause new mental or medical health problems, worsen existing illnesses and damage personal, social, and professional relationships.1

Self Medicating

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What Are Some Common Reasons That People Self-Medicate?

Many people self-medicate to cope with or even attempt to control symptoms related to physical or emotional health problems. Using drugs or alcohol offers a short-term escape from pain, stress, anxiety, or other challenging emotions.

The reasons why people use substances as a coping tool are varied, but common examples include the following:2

  • Stress
  • Social pressures
  • Anxiety
  • Grief
  • Childhood trauma
  • Abuse
  • Medical health challenges
  • Depression
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or acute trauma
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Mood disorders

Forms of Self-Medication

Self-mediation involves using a substance as a way to cope. The types of substances used to self-medicate widely vary, but some of the most common examples will be detailed below.

Alcohol

Alcohol is perhaps the most common method of self-medication. Alcohol is more accessible than many illicit or prescription drugs. People use alcohol as a coping tool for stress, anxiety, and depression. What some may not realize is that alcohol acts as a depressant.

Although it may dull symptoms in the short term, it will worsen them as the effects of alcohol begin to wear off.

Prescription Drugs (Painkillers, ADHD Medications, etc.)

Prescription medications, including opioid pain medications, anti-anxiety medications, and prescriptions used to manage ADHD, are also easily accessible. Depending on the individual and their symptoms, prescription drugs may be used to manage chronic pain, improve focus, or increase energy.

Nicotine

Nicotine is found in standard cigarettes and other tobacco products. For some, nicotine can increase alertness and improve focus.

Recreational Drugs (Marijuana, Cocaine, etc.)

Stimulants, amphetamines, and other drugs, such as cocaine and marijuana, are used to reduce stress and anxiety in unpleasant and uncomfortable situations. These substances can also help reduce the impact of painful memories such as those associated with trauma.

Food

Self-medication is commonly associated with drugs or alcohol, but people can also use food to cope with unpleasant feelings or to manage symptoms of anxiety, depression, or stress. Emotional eating can lead to problems with weight and worsening mood regulation. 

Signs That Someone is Self-Medicating

It may be difficult to tell when someone is self-medicating. It can also be challenging to identify that you are self-medicating to manage your physical or emotional challenges. It is important to consider why you are using a substance to cope with certain feelings. Understanding the motivation behind taking substances can help you better understand whether your actions could lead to worsening symptoms.

Indications that you may be self-medicating include:3

  • Avoiding spending time with friends and family or at social events and other activities
  • A sudden change in hobbies or regular activities
  • Increased secrecy or desire for privacy
  • Lack of personal hygiene or decreased attention to personal care needs
  • New difficulties at work, school, or home
  • Sudden anger or mood swings
  • New or unusual financial and legal difficulties

How Do Moods and Cravings Affect A Person’s Decision to Self-Medicate?

One’s mood and cravings for a particular substance may also contribute to their decision to use drugs or alcohol to control their symptoms. Cravings to use or drink can be caused by various emotions, such as:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Sadness
  • Frustration

Potential Risks and Dangers of Self-Medication

As mentioned above, self-medicating is an unhealthy coping tool that can have dangerous outcomes when used as a long-term way to manage symptoms. In addition to potential addiction to drugs or alcohol (or the development of an eating disorder when food is used to self-medicate), self-medication can also cause:4

Worsening Symptoms

Using drugs or alcohol to manage mental health symptoms can worsen your existing symptoms (or lead to new ones), especially as the effects of your substance of choice wear off. In some cases, symptoms can return stronger and more persistent.

Harmful Interactions with Prescription Medications

Alcohol and drugs can interact with prescription medications by either reducing their effectiveness or leading to unpleasant and potentially dangerous side effects.

New Mental Health Challenges

Self-medicating can lead to new (or worsening) mental health challenges in addition to those for which drugs and alcohol were initially used to manage. Some drugs can cause mental health challenges as a side effect of use. For example, marijuana use is linked to psychosis, and opioid use to increased depression.5

Delaying or Preventing You From Seeking Help

When you use substances to manage symptoms and it seems to work, it can be challenging to actively decide to look for an alternative way to manage your symptoms. It is essential to consider how using drugs and alcohol to cope may adversely impact your overall health. Understanding the challenges presented by substance use can motivate you to seek professional help to learn safer, more effective coping tools.

How To Stop Self-Medicating

Self-medication is typically linked to an unresolved medical or mental health issue. Seeking treatment to address any underlying conditions can help you stop self-medicating. When someone develops an addiction due to self-medication and also has an underlying mental illness, it is referred to as a dual diagnosis. The best way to heal from both is to choose a treatment program specializing in dual diagnosis care. During treatment, you will participate in various types of therapy designed to help you better understand self-medicating behaviors before learning and practicing beneficial coping tools to use after treatment.

Most treatment programs for self-medicating involve several stages of treatment. In some cases, if you have developed an addiction to alcohol or drugs, detoxification may be a necessary first step to help you stop using safely. After detox, you can transition into therapeutic treatment to address both mental health and substance abuse challenges.

Therapy

Depending on your treatment needs and goals, therapy for self-medication and its root causes may occur in an inpatient or outpatient treatment environment. If detox is necessary or you have a dual diagnosis, the intensive level of care and support at an inpatient program may be the best first step toward helping you heal.

Your provider at Profound Treatment can work with you to develop a care plan that addresses your specific needs and goals. They can also help you determine which level of care is best for you.

Peer Support Groups

In addition to therapy, peer support groups, both during and after treatment, are a vital element of the treatment process. Engaging in peer support groups offers an opportunity to give and receive support from others who share a similar recovery journey.

These groups also allow you to develop relationships with others who can support and encourage you during challenging times, especially after treatment ends and symptoms that once led to self-medication arise.

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Alternative Coping Methods

In addition to seeking treatment, there are other steps you can take to manage your symptoms without self-medicating.

Exercise

Exercise is a powerful, natural tool to improve mood and reduce tension. Exercise can also improve your physical and emotional health. Exercise doesn’t have to be extreme and doesn’t have to include the gym; just going on daily walks can help to balance your mental health.

Eat a Healthier Diet

The food you eat can have a dramatic effect on your mood. Reducing your intake of sugar and junk food will not only improve your energy levels and mood but can also positively impact your weight and blood pressure. Developing healthy foods that not only provide you with all the necessary nutrients but leave you feeling energetic and satiated can help increase your mental health and wellness.

Find a Relaxing Activity

A relaxation technique such as yoga or meditation can reduce stress and anxiety while providing a positive, calming effect.

Lean On Your Support System

When faced with particularly challenging emotions, connecting with friends, family, or members of your peer support group can help improve your mood and reduce your stress without self-medicating. Developing strong, healthy interpersonal relationships can prove to be a great asset for mental well-being.

Get Help for Self-Medicating at Profound Treatment

Self-medication is an unhealthy and sometimes dangerous coping strategy for managing difficult or unpleasant emotions. If you or a loved one are using drugs or alcohol to cope with medical or mental health challenges, treatment can help.

At Profound Treatment, we will work with you to develop a care plan that helps you learn more about your mental health so you can develop safer and more beneficial coping tools to use when faced with triggers in the future. Self-medication can be a complicated pattern to break, but we can help. Contact us today to learn more about our treatment programs.

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