Rehab 4 Addiction
Call us now 0800 140 4690

Self-medicating is the process of using any substance to treat mental or physical illnesses without the recommendation or approval of a doctor.

Alcohol and various types of drugs are the most common substances people use to deal with their mental and emotional ailments.

Unfortunately, doing so does not usually work out well and can actually worsen the problem they are trying to treat.

Why Do People Self-Medicate?

The answer to this is simple: people self-medicate to feel better. For decades research has shown an extremely clear correlation between mental illness and addiction. The relationship for this goes both ways.

People with mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety are significantly more likely to develop serious addictions to drugs or alcohol.

On the other hand, people with addictions usually develop mental illnesses or at least symptoms of said illnesses.

Furthermore, most people can not recover from one without dealing with and treating the other.

Who Self-Medicates?

Here are some of the most common types of people to self-medicate:

1.  People who have a past pain and trauma that result in high levels of unhappiness or anxiety. Usually, these people self-medicate to numb their feelings and avoid facing/dealing with their past.

2. People who are having problems with relationships of any kind (significant other, parent, child, etc.) or are going through a serious life change may self-medicate to get a break from all the stressors in their life.

3. People with mental illness often self-medicate. When they do so, they may get a temporary reprieve from their issues, but most substances will end up making the various symptoms worse in the long run.

Simply put, some people want to have fun. They may feel like they can not have fun without the use of drugs and alcohol, so they self-medicate to bring some fun into their life.

4. People grieving for any reason may choose to self-medicate. Often the feelings that come with grief are really intense and may feel overwhelming, so people may turn to substances to deal with the loss.

The Self-Medicating Hypothesis

The self-medicating hypothesis came about in the 1980s when researchers decided that substance abuse was often due to people with a mental illness deciding to self-medicate.

Often, people gravitate towards the substance that best alleviates their symptoms. Unfortunately, while the substances may provide short-lived relief, usually substance abuse just makes mental illness worse.

How Does Self-Medicating Lead to Addiction

Using drugs or alcohol at any point, but especially when doing so to cope with difficulty, is a step towards addiction.

With a little bit of time, what starts out as a method to feel better every once in a while can evolve into the human body depending on dangerous substances to function properly.

Because of this, self-medicating does not actually solve any of the problems the person is originally trying to cope with; it just adds more and more problems on top of the original issue.

Addiction, self-medicating, and mental illness are all part of a dangerous cycle.

So if you catch yourself or someone close to you beginning to step into the cycle, it is best to stop and treat all parts immediately. The longer addiction develops, the harder it can be to recover.

Is Self-Medicating Self Harm?

There have been tons of studies about the correlation between self-medicating and self-harm.

Because self-medicating can worsen depression and suicidal ideation, self-harm is naturally more likely when someone is self-medicating. Beyond that, however, self-medicating can be a form of self-harm.

In one study, 30.7% of participants said that their main form of self-harm was poisoning. That means they take a drug or substance of some kind purposefully to hurt themselves.

Common forms of this include diet pills, taking enough of a medicine to make themselves sick, or even bleach.

Various Self Medication Substances

1. Opiates and Opioids

Opioids include drugs such as heroin and oxycodone. When given out by a doctor, opioids are really strong prescription pain killers for serious injuries, surgeries, etc.

While opiates and opioids are very good at treating pain, they are highly addictive, and the human body can very easily become dependent on them.

How opiates work is that they trigger the release of powerful endorphins that muffle pain and heighten the body’s sensitivity to pleasure.

Because they are fairly readily prescribed, someone trying to experiment with them can do so fairly easily.

Additionally, someone originally prescribed opioids for medical reasons, can easily become addicted and be unable to get off of them, even when that prescription is no longer available to them.

Often, recovered addicts will refuse to take stronger pain killers for injuries and surgeries because they do not want to risk addiction.

There are some minor side-effects to opiates such as drowsiness, nausea, constipation, and slowed breathing, but the real danger lies in the more serious side-effects.

Opiates can cause long term psychological and neurological damage that can result in coma, brain damage, and even death.

Furthermore, a lot of people who use opiates have depression, but when someone with depression self-medicate with opiates, the risk of death is extremely hard.

2. Alcohol

Alcohol is an extremely common form of self-medication because drinking is legal and not considered taboo by the general public.

Lots of people go home or to a bar after a long, stressful day or a long, stressful week to take the edge off with a drink.

While this line of thinking is normal, it can be extremely dangerous, especially for people who have mental illness.

It is true that when you first drink, alcohol activates feel-good neurotransmitters that boost your mood for a short period; however, when blood alcohol levels start lowering, the opposite happens.

Alcohol can act as inhibitors such as GABA to slow down the nervous system and actually lower a person’s mood and increase symptoms of depression.

Beyond the psychological risks for alcohol abuse, there is a wide range of physical risks as well.

Alcohol abuse can damage the liver due to the toxins released as the alcohol is processed.

There is also a risk of gastrointestinal bleeding, increased risk of gastrointestinal cancer, brain and nerve damage, pancreatitis, high blood pressure, and dementia.

While alcohol may be more socially acceptable than some other substances, the risks are still extremely high.

3. Food

Food is different than most of the other substances on this list because all humans biologically need food to survive.

Beyond that, most people do not simply eat for survival, but also for pleasure, at least some of the time.

This can become a problem for people, especially when they are using it deal with emotions and difficult situations in life.

When you eat food, especially salty, greasy, or sugary foods, the brain releases the neurotransmitter known as dopamine.

Dopamine makes us feel good, so when we eat food, we feel good. Unfortunately, just like the other substances on this list, the dopamine eventually stops coming and that feeling good only lasts for a little bit.

When finished, most people will feel depressed, shame, guilt, or loneliness.

When someone uses food as a coping mechanism, it can become really easy to develop an eating disorder.

It can be okay to get a treat at the end of a hard day every once in a while, but it is important to moderate yourself, especially if you are susceptible to eating disorders and other mental illnesses.

If someone is using food as a coping mechanism/self-medication, the most important thing for their recovery is they treat the cause (the mental illness, situation, feeling,etc.) and not just the response (the food.)

4. Caffeine

Lots of people drink coffee (or other types of caffeinated beverages) every day, several times a day.

In fact, there are countless studies that prove the beneficial effects that coffee can have (including lowering suicide rates.)

So if this is the case, why is caffeine on this list? Like anything, caffeine, and then benefits it provides, are best in moderation.

When someone drinks too much caffeine, their bodies begin to be reliant on the caffeine, and they are unable to deal with underlying mental/emotional health issues properly.

If you do not deal with these issues, they will come back, often worse, with time.

Additionally, drinking too much coffee/caffeine can make your body tolerant to it, and the positive effects will no longer apply.

Drinking up to three cups of coffee or the equivalent in another type of drink (spread out) can be extraordinarily beneficial, but when you surpass that amount, you put yourself at risk for negative side effects.

If you begin to suffer from insomnia, heartburn or heart palpitations, headaches, or an overall sense of nervousness or anxiety, you should highly consider cutting back on your caffeine intake.

5. Antibiotics

Antibiotics are a very common form of medicine that doctors prescribe, and some you can even get over the counter.

A lot of people will you various over the counter medicines or even medicines from previous illnesses to save themselves time and money.

This is self-medication, and it can have various negative effects on your health.

First of all, if you are using expired medications, they not only may not work, but they may actually be dangerous.

Many medicines actually go through various chemical reactions with time that can make them dangerous to consume (hence the expiration date.)

Furthermore, even if your medicine is not expired, using medicines when you do not know for sure what you have, can be dangerous.

Even if the medicine treats the symptoms, there may be a more serious underlying cause.

Finally, using the medicine wrong, taking the wrong dose, or mixing several medications can all be extremely dangerous.

6. Cannabis

Cannabis, or marijuana, is a highly debated topic in the field of medicine and mental health.

Some professionals believe that cannabis can be given to a patient by a doctor to treat depression, but other studies have shown that heavy cannabis use and depression are linked.

It is important to note that even if it does work to treat depression, self-medicating with it can still make symptoms worse and lead to serious problems.

Beyond that, cannabis has been proven to cause certain problems such as psychosis and schizophrenia.

Other risks are still being explored based on the various ways you can take it.

7. Psychostimulants

Psychostimulants are drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines that can give the user a feeling of euphoria.

This feeling and the drug itself are both highly addictive, which can result in worsening depression and anxiety as soon as the sense of euphoria wears off.

When a psychostimulant starts to wear off, the user starts to experience a ‘crash’ which can be really bad depressive episodes, anxiety, or even anger.

Because of this, psychostimulants can only be, at best, a temporary solution.

One of the biggest risks with psychostimulants is that it is easy to overdose on when used for recreational purposes.

Cocaine can cause major damage to the cardiovascular system that can lead to total heart failure.

Amphetamines speed up the function of the heart, which puts a person at high risk for a stroke.

Beyond the serious physical dangers, getting caught under the influence of or even just carrying psychostimulants can lead to serious legal repercussions.

For all of these reasons, psychostimulants are one of the most dangerous forms of self-medication people use.

ADHD and Marijuana

People diagnosed with ADHD are significantly more likely to use marijuana than other people.

There are a few theories out there as to why that is. One, people with ADHD typically have worse impulse control.

This means that at times when others may be able to avoid falling into temptation, they do not. People with ADHD often do not think through their thoughts/decisions as much as many other people do before turning them to actions.

Two, all teenagers are at risk of using various substances due to wanting to fit in/falling into patterns of peer pressure. Teens with ADHD are even more likely to do so.

Finally, marijuana is known to have a calming effect, so teenagers may use it to handle the more challenging aspects of their disorder.

Risks of Self-Medicating

Of course, the risks that go along with self-medicating depends a lot on what substance a person is using and how often they are using it.

However,  below are some of the most common and wide-spread risks that are associated with self-medicating:

1.  Higher chance of developing a mood disorder
2. More likely to have a comorbidity (multiple disorders at one time)
3. The risk for various harmful side-effects depending on the substance
4. Worsening of the original problem
5. Addiction/dependency
6. Might be more likely to get involved in risk activities
7. Lack of impulse control and logical thinking skills when under the influence
8. Suicidal ideation
9. Death
10. Withdrawal symptoms

When Teenagers Self-Medicate

Teenagers often turn to alcohol and drugs when they are dealing with challenging situations and emotional problems.

Additionally, their logical thinking and decision making skills are not fully formed, so they can be more likely to turn to self-medicating than adults.

This is especially problematic for several reasons, including the fact that their brains are not yet done developing, so the drugs and alcohol are more likely to cause serious long term brain damage.

Signs a teenage may be self-medicating include, but are not limited to:

1.  Lack of personal hygiene
2. Lack of care for themselves or those around them
3. Significant weight loss or gain in a short period of time
4. Increased agitation and defensiveness, especially when confronted
5. Odd sleep schedule
6. Major and frequent mood swings

Dual Diagnosis

When someone is self-medicating or diagnosed with substance abuse, treatment must not stop there. It is essential to diagnose and treat any psychological issues as well.

If the root of the problem is not fixed, the person will most likely turn back to the same substance or find another form of self-medication.

Dual diagnosis (or the diagnosis of substance abuse and another mental illness) is incredibly important to recovery.

To recover from their substance abuse issues, they must deal with their mental health issues, and to recover from their mental health issues, they must stop using substances to cope in unhealthy ways.

Are You Self-Medicating for Anxiety and Depression?

The first step to dealing with the fact that you are self-medicating is admitting that is what you are doing.

If you are not yet sure, you can try to figure it out by trying to stop whatever substance you are using.

If this sounds scary or you find yourself feeling worse and worse when you do not use it, you are probably self-medicating. Additionally, you can just ask yourself why you are getting the drink or using the substance.

If the answer is to feel better or to avoid a certain problem, you are self-medicating.

Finally, if you have anxiety and depression and find yourself using drugs or way overdoing it with alcohol, caffeine, or even food, you are probably self-medicating.

Treatment

Once you admit that you are self-medicating, you can work towards recovery.

Below are some of the most popular and successful treatment options for both substance abuse and the co-occurring mental illnesses you may have.

1.  Al-Anon

Al-anon or other anonymous 12-step groups are one of the most popular ways to deal with substance abuse problems and co-occurring mental illness.

In these support groups, you are surrounded by people who can relate to you, understand what you are going through, and inspire you to keep going when it gets really hard.

In these groups, there will be people in all different places of their journey, which can be really helpful to someone in recovery.

2. Families Anonymous

This is a support group for relatives and friends of people with substance abuse problems.

This can be helpful to family members who do not have their own struggles, but it can also be really helpful to those who both have substance abuse problems are related to people with substance abuse problems.

Talking to people with similar struggles as you can be really helpful during recovery.

3. NAMI

This is the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and they have great resources for learning about mental illness, and they have hotlines available to the public.

If, during recovery, you are considering turning back to self-medication, calling a hotline (whether NAMI or a different one) can help you stay on track.

This is especially helpful if you do not have someone in your life that you feel like you can trust with your vulnerabilities.

4. Self-treatment

You may be able to learn self-treatment/healthy coping mechanisms on your own, but often these are most helpful when you learn them from a professional such as a therapist.

Examples of self-treatment can be coloring, deep breathing, exercises, journaling, and various other relaxation techniques.

5. Medicine

There are medications such as anti-depressants and Benzodiazepines that doctors can prescribe you to treat your mental illness or substance abuse problems safely.

Remember, medication can be a good way to handle your psychological problems, but only when you are working with a professional.

6. Management of stress/anxiety

Learning from mentors, therapists, peers, or even from research on how to better manage your stress and anxiety can help you no longer feel the need to self-medicate.

Eating healthy, exercising more, purposeful breathing, giving your self-time to rejuvenate, and talking to someone are all great methods to help you deal with your stress and anxiety.

7. Cognitive-behavioural therapy

Also known as CBT for short, cognitive-behavioral therapy is a very common type of talk therapy that focuses on practical and hands-on problem-solving techniques so people can successfully deal with life and various psychological issues.

The main goals of this kind of therapy are to identify issues, decrease the frequency and intensity of said issues, and develop healthy coping skills.

It is important to find the right therapist for you if you want to have the most success with cognitive-behavioral therapy or any kind of therapy for that matter.

References

[1] http://www.unodc.org/documents/wdr2015/WDR15_Chapter_1.pdf

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19936579

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC135492/#B17

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1361129/

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC181074/

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23795762

[7] https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUHresults2012/NSDUHresults2012.pdf