- Written By Granite Recovery Centers
- Clinically Reviewed By Cheryl Smith MS,MLADC
- December 27, 2021
Your Guide to Understanding Self-Medicating and Addiction
Did you know that roughly half of all people with mental health disorders end up dealing with substance abuse? Health problems and addiction are very closely related. People who have either physical or mental health issues may end up turning to drugs and alcohol as a way of coping. This process is called self-medicating, and it can be extremely dangerous.
What Is Self-Medicating?
Self-medicating is a medical term that describes people attempting to manage health problems with unprescribed drugs or alcohol. When a person self-medicates, they use drugs or alcohol to help reduce symptoms associated with their health condition. If a person says, “I take stimulants to help me focus,” or says, “Alcohol makes my menstrual cramps go away,” they might be self-medicating.
Self-medicating comes in many forms. Some people buy drugs used to treat their illness without a prescription, and others use illegal drugs like heroin or methamphetamines. People can also self-medicate with alcohol and other legal substances.
Some people self-medicate intentionally. They may be aware they have a health issue but do not want to see a doctor. Therefore, they end up turning to substances that can potentially reduce their symptoms. Others self-medicate without realizing it. They notice that they feel better on certain drugs, so they begin using them more because they like how it feels to not have certain health symptoms. In fact, some people who self-medicate may not even be aware that they have a mental health problem.
Health Problems that Lead to Self-Medication
There are all sorts of mental and physical issues that can lead to self-medication. To better understand self-medication, it is helpful to learn about situations where it is likely to occur.
Anxiety disorders are an incredibly underdiagnosed type of mental health condition. Many people deal with overwhelming anxiety without even realizing it. This anxiety can be enough to get in the way of working, developing relationships, and living normally. Unfortunately, the idea of having a few beers to loosen up at parties is very prevalent. Those with anxiety disorders, OCD, and other similar conditions might turn to drugs or alcohol to dull their symptoms.
When a person has depression, they might try drugs to improve their mood. Some people feel like they are only happy when they use drugs. Other people with depression use drugs and alcohol as a form of self-harm. They may feel intense self-loathing, and using harmful substances may be a way of them acting on this symptom.
Since drugs and alcohol often reduce physical sensations, they can be very appealing to those with chronic pain. Prescription painkillers, like Oxycontin, are some of the most frequently abused types of drugs among those with chronic pain. Some chronic pain sufferers have issues like multiple sclerosis or endometriosis. Others may be dealing with pain following injuries or accidents.
ADHD and other attention deficit disorders are unique. Unlike many other types of self-medicators, people with ADHD are usually not using drugs to help dull their symptoms. Instead, they often turn to stimulants to help them focus. Due to their brain chemistry, many dangerous drugs can make it easier for those with ADHD to work, study, and function normally. However, the use of these drugs without a prescription can lead to abuse.
Are All People Who Self-Medicate Addicted?
Addiction is a complex subject, and it becomes even more complicated when you consider self-medication. People who self-medicate may not necessarily fulfill all the diagnostic criteria for a substance use disorder. However, self-medication is always a type of unhealthy drug or alcohol use. Anyone who is self-medicating is at risk for developing one or more types of addiction.
Physical Dependence on Drugs
If you are self-medicating on a regular basis, you risk developing a physical dependency on drugs. Many substances, including alcohol, prescription painkillers, and anti-anxiety medications, are physically addictive. Once you use the drug a few times, your brain starts to crave it. Your body cannot function normally without it, and if you quit using the drug, you develop withdrawal symptoms. Many self-medicators fall into this category. Though they don’t have mental reliance on drugs, they cannot quit using them without feeling sick.
Psychological Reliance on Drugs
It is also possible to develop a mental addiction to drugs or alcohol. A substance use disorder is a mental health problem where you have a strong mental desire for a substance. Psychological addiction can happen even with substances that aren’t physically addictive, such as marijuana or LSD. If you have a mental reliance on drugs, you may spend a lot of your time thinking about and using the drugs. Even though the drugs may not cause you to go into withdrawal when you quit using them, you may feel intense anxiety and fear at the idea of not using them.
Self-Medicating Can Be Just as Harmful as Addiction
Because self-medicating can address serious health problems, many people think it’s harmless behavior. For example, consider a person who realizes that they have all the symptoms of an anxiety disorder listed online, and they see that benzodiazepines are used to treat anxiety. They might feel that buying some benzos from a dealer and taking them is no different than going to a doctor and getting a prescription. However, the reality is that self-medicating can harm you in many ways.
Self-Medicating Can Cause You to Accidentally Hurt Yourself
The average person doesn’t have the years of experience and knowledge that a doctor does. They may accidentally take the wrong dose or use a medication with severe side effects. In some cases, people can even end up misdiagnosing their problem and taking a drug that exacerbates their actual condition.
Self-Medicating Often Leads to More Dangerous Drug Use
Furthermore, without input from a doctor, it’s easy to end up using more dangerous substances. Over time, the idea of turning to drugs and alcohol becomes normalized, so individuals might end up using more or switching to stronger drugs. People can start with just having a drink to ease chronic pain and end up with a very serious opioid addiction.
Those With Mental Health Issues Are More at Risk for Addiction
If you are tempted to self-medicate, it is important to realize that using drugs might be riskier for you. Certain illnesses, like ADHD, may predispose the brain to addiction, so people with health problems face higher risks when using drugs. Compared to the general population, people with mental or physical health problems are more likely to become addicted once they use drugs.
What You Can Do to Stop Self-Medicating
Self-medicating can be very hard to stop on your own. It often requires a multi-faceted treatment approach. Most people who self-medicate will benefit from professional health care. Instead of going cold turkey, they need expert care to address all their connected health challenges. Here are some of the most essential treatment options.
Diagnosing Co-occurring Disorders
Often, people who self-medicate are not intentionally doing something like drinking alcohol to numb depression symptoms. Instead, they just have a vague feeling that something is wrong and that substance use helps. This is why diagnosis is so important. It can figure out what is causing the various health problems that are encouraging the person to abuse substances in the first place.
Treating Health Problems
After getting a diagnosis, people can find treatment options beyond just abusing substances. For example, those with chronic pain can benefit from physical therapy to decompress nerves. In many cases, doctors can help recommend medications with less potential for abuse. People struggling with things like depression, anxiety, or OCD can get a lot of relief from non-addictive medications. Even potentially addictive medications like benzodiazepines can even be useful when they are given at the appropriate dose.
Since many people who self-medicate end up with at least some level of addiction, substance use treatment is often necessary. This sort of care comes in many forms. Those with severe addiction might need to detox in a medical facility and then check themselves into inpatient rehab. Granite Recovery Centers provides medical detoxification for people who do not need immediate medical intervention, are not a danger to themselves, and are capable of self-evacuation in the event of an emergency.
People with just a mild tendency toward overuse can benefit from a less intensive approach. They may just need to start attending therapy every now and then or go to a substance use support group. Since there are so many different addiction treatment options, it’s a good idea to visit a professional who can diagnose the level of addiction and recommend appropriate care.