Dangers of Using Drugs to Cope

Using drugs to cope, also referred to as self-medicating, is an attempt to deal with anxiety, stress, or other difficult situations with drugs or alcohol.

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What Is Self-Medicating?

No one enjoys feeling lonely, anxious, sad, or angry. Coping with these emotions with substances such as drugs or alcohol may offer some temporary relief from these potentially negative emotions, but self-medicating only leads to other problems in the long run.
For many people, the occasional joint or drink can lead to more stress, instability, and reasons to depend on substances for help in other areas of their lives as well. This can quickly turn into a drug or alcohol dependence or addiction.
Using Drugs To Cope

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Overview of Self-Medication

Self-medicating is using drugs or alcohol to alleviate symptoms like physical pain or emotional distress in ways not directed by a doctor. The use of addiction as a coping mechanism can look like:

  • Self-medicating with alcohol to overcome anxiety
  • Using a stimulant to feel energized or focused
  • Using alcohol to cope with depression
  • Treating pain with someone else’s prescription medication
Many people turn to drugs or alcohol to relieve psychological symptoms. Some people are aware that they have a mental health condition and are using alcohol or other substances to cope with it. Others may not realize they have a treatable condition and are simply trying to get through each day the best they can.

Forms of Self-Medication

Self-medication can start out mildly but progress when low substance use no longer brings relief. Addiction and self-medicating are closely related, and it can be difficult to stop drug abuse once it has started. Forms of self-medication include alcohol, prescription or recreational drugs, and nicotine.

Self-medicating to deal with stress can seem harmless, as many people do it to help from time to time, but even a nightly glass of wine can soon turn into an addiction if you or your loved one don’t take note of the side effects.

Do You Use Alcohol or Drugs as a Coping Mechanism?

Using alcohol or drugs to cope with difficult circumstances can be especially dangerous for those who are already vulnerable to developing an addiction disorder. Risk factors for self-medication include stressful conditions and events like:
  • Childhood trauma and other traumas
  • Grief and other intense emotional experiences
  • Chronic illness
  • Mental health disorders

How Does Stress Influence Substance Misuse?

A report published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse states that stress is a major contributor to drug and alcohol abuse and that children who are exposed to severe stress are more vulnerable to developing an addiction disorder than those who are not. 1
Using drugs to cope with stress or other problems can occur when substances are used to help a person unwind, cope with social situations, sleep, or improve their overall mood.

When Is Self-Medication a Problem?

The warning signs of self-medicating to deal with stress are the same as the signs that someone is abusing drugs. Self-medication may be a problem when you or a loved one:
  • Lack of interest in natural help for anxiety or depression
  • Neglect your physical care and hygiene
  • Have cravings or urges for using drugs or alcohol
  • Need drugs or alcohol more frequently throughout the day
  • Feel angry or irritable when substances aren’t available
  • Avoid social situations where drugs or alcohol are not present
  • Stay away from friends and family members
  • Experience consequences with work, school, or relationships because of substance use

One of the most important warning signs you are self-medicating is that your emotional health is getting worse, not better. Are you experiencing an increase in anxiety after drugs wear off? Do you feel symptoms of depression after stopping the use of weed? If drug use was truly helpful, you would be experiencing an improvement in your mental health, not a decline.

Dangers of Using Drugs to Cope

The Surgeon General’s report on alcohol, drugs, and health confirms that withdrawing from alcohol produces negative emotions. These negative feelings get stronger each time a person attempts to quit drinking, which often prompts more frequent bouts of alcohol abuse. If you are self-medicating anxiety with alcohol or using medication to control emotions, you are putting your physical and mental health at risk. 2
Some of the dangers of self-medicating with alcohol and drugs include:
  • Worsening mental health symptoms
  • Dangerous interactions with prescription medications
  • Triggering new mental health symptoms
  • Not knowing how to seek help
  • Developing a dependence or addiction 

Self Medication in the United States

There are also drug-specific risks related to coping with drugs. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that: 3
  • Cocaine is responsible for one in five overdose deaths in the U.S.
  • Opioid use (prescription and illegal) is the number-one cause of overdose deaths in the U.S.
Self-medicating can also cause legal consequences. An arrest for drunk driving or possession of an illegal substance can take away your freedom and potentially ruin your career, finances, and your relationship with friends and family.

How to Stop Self-Medicating

If you are coping with drugs, the first step is to recognize you have a problem. Speak with your doctor or mental health professional if you are feeling depressed, anxious, or have any other symptoms that are a result of self-medication. You can learn how to develop healthy coping strategies that will serve you for a lifetime and won’t put you at risk for an addiction disorder. Ways to cope with addiction and self-medication may include:

  • Therapy 
  • Outpatient or inpatient treatment
  • Peer support groups
  • Medical support (treating chronic pain and medically assisted detox)
  • Learning new coping strategies
  • Drugs to help with addiction (these are beneficial only under medical supervision and advisement)
The National Institute of Mental Health reports that one in five U.S. adults is living with a mental health disorder. While not every person struggling with mental health symptoms is using drugs or alcohol to cope, it does put them at risk for self-medicating. 4
Using Drugs To Cope

Get Help to Stop Self-Medicating at Profound Recovery

If you or someone you know is using drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism for anxiety or other mental health concerns, help is available.

Contact Profound Recovery for more information on ways to cope with addiction. Helping someone with substance abuse issues isn’t an easy thing to do, but it will help you live a healthier and happier life.

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