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What is Self-Medication?

what is self-medicating

There are many reasons that a person might abuse alcohol or drugs. Some people drink or use drugs to have a good time with friends. Some are just experimenting – they want to see what it’s like to get high. Some get peer pressured into trying drugs or alcohol. Then, there are others who use these substances to self-medicate.

Self-medication is a behavior in which a person self-administers a substance, in efforts to treat a physical or psychological ailment. When self-medicating, a person will often turn to prescription drugs, illicit drugs, or alcohol to deal with difficult feelings or pain. 

In some cases, self-medication is completely safe. For example, a person may self-medicate a sore throat with over-the-counter cold medicine. However, many people will attempt to self-medicate with addictive substances, like alcohol or heroin. This can be very dangerous.

Substances like alcohol, heroin, cocaine, and even prescription drugs have mind-altering effects. They change the function in the brain, and trigger effects throughout the central nervous system. For example, alcohol is a depressant that slows down neurological activity. In turn, it relaxes a person for a temporary period of time. 

Prescription painkillers like OxyContin, along with illicit opioids like heroin, fall into a similar category. Opioid drugs create numbing effects, relaxing the body and mind, and relieving the user from pain. As you might guess, self-medication with these drugs can go wrong very quickly, as these drugs are highly addictive.

When someone self-medicates with mind-altering substances, it is typically to cope with feelings of depression, stress, or another emotional or physical pain. They use drugs to escape these negative feelings. The problem is, this escape is very temporary. After the effects of the drug wear off, a person may experience a “down” period, which can involve exacerbated feelings of depression, anxiety, and sickness. As this occurs, the user may turn back to the bottle – of alcohol, of prescription pills – to try and “feel better.”

Thus begins a vicious cycle of self-medication. A person uses drugs to escape bad feelings, only to find those feelings worse when the drugs wear off (a period of withdrawal). As they ramp up drug use to “feel better” again, they put themselves at a greater risk for developing an addiction.

It is for this reason that many people with mental health disorders also have a co-occurring substance use disorder. In fact, those with anxiety and mood disorders are about twice as likely to suffer from a substance use disorder, and vice versa. Today, more than eight million adults in the United States are battling both a substance use disorder and mental illness simultaneously.

Mental health disorders that commonly lead to self-medication include:

To learn more about the relationships between addiction and these mental health disorders, do not hesitate to click the links above. Each mental health issue comes with different, yet difficult symptoms. Those afflicted may be scared to speak up and say that are struggling, for example, with feelings of depression or anxiety. In efforts to feel better, to feel normal, or to treat the issue on their own, they may turn to drugs and alcohol to cope.

Signs of Self-Medicating

If you are concerned your loved one is self-medicating with drugs, it is important to seek help. Left untreated, co-occurring disorders can lead to life-threatening outcomes like overdose and suicide. Below are common signs of self-medication:

  1. Drinking or using drugs when stressed, sad, angry, or uncomfortable.
  2. Worsened mood or mental health after drinking or getting high.
  3. Pre-occupied with thoughts of drinking and using. The person worries about not being able to drink or use drugs in given situations.
  4. Family and friends are concerned about the amount of drugs or alcohol being used.
  5. Isolation from family, friends, and once-loved activities.
  6. Secrecy about how they are spending their time.
  7. Neglection of personal hygiene and self-care.
  8. Sudden changes in interests, hobbies, or friend groups.
  9. New struggles with finances, due to spending money on drugs.
  10. In general, problems are getting worse. This may mean increased difficulty at school, at work, or in relationships. It may also mean worsened physical and mental health.

If your loved one is struggling with depression, anxiety, trauma, or any other mental illness, do not hesitate to seek professional guidance, particularly if you think your loved one is at higher risk of using substances. It is never too early to intervene. 

Co-occurring addiction and mental health disorders require specialized treatment, in order to treat both disorders and ensure a full recovery. This treatment is often referred to as dual diagnosis treatment, which means the treatment of both disorders is integrated and treated in one place. 

Turnbridge is a recognized dual diagnosis treatment center, with programs designed for young men and women struggling with drug abuse, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental illnesses. To learn about our programs, and how to treat these mental health disorders effectively, please do not hesitate to contact us. Call 877-581-1793 for help.