Updated on 07/03/23

Content Reviewed by Cameron Bolish, M.Ed., CEO of PaRC

Regardless of why a person drinks alcohol or uses drugs, chemical substances are inevitably problematic. Repeated substance use rewires critical brain pathways that give individuals the ability to feel a sense of self-control and self-worth, among many other things. However, people who are already struggling with their mental health and sense of self may turn to substances in an attempt to experience relief from their pain. This dynamic is the recipe for self-medicating.

The four main reasons people use drugs are to feel good, feel better, do better and ease curiosity. When it comes to feeling good or feeling better, self-medicating must be addressed due to the dangers it can bring to a person’s life. It is important to recognize signs of self-medicating in yourself and your loved ones and work to replace self-medicating situations with healthier coping mechanisms. Without replacing the behavior, self-medicating can be detrimental to all aspects of a person’s life.

What is Self-Medication?

Self-medication is defined as the use of chemical substances by an individual in an attempt to treat self-diagnosed conditions or self-recognized symptoms of distress. While self-medicating may seem like an effective way to experience relief from painful symptoms, it only worsens your mental health problems over time.

It is essential to recognize that self-medicating is not the same as taking medications prescribed by your doctor to treat your mental health. Self-medicating happens without a doctor’s recommendation, guidance or approval. In other words, self-medicating practices occur when a person turns to alcohol or other drugs to manage their mental health symptoms independently.

Why Do People Self-Medicate?

Feelings of sadness, anger, loss and anxiety are everyday experiences in life. To effectively deal with these uncomfortable feelings, each person develops unique coping mechanisms. Some turn to alcohol and other drugs to cope.

People self-medicate for various reasons, primarily because it provides the fastest relief from distress. People may self-medicate to deal with unpleasant memories from the past or use substances as a form of courage to face overwhelming or frightening situations.

There are different substances used in self-medication, including:

  • Alcohol
  • Prescription drugs
  • Recreational drugs
  • Food
  • Nicotine

Signs That You May Be Self-Medicating

Since activities like drinking alcohol seem to be a social norm, it can be challenging to recognize when you or your loved ones engage in harmful and self-medicating practices. To better understand whether you are indeed self-medicating or not, it is vital to acknowledge your motives for drinking alcohol or using drugs and examine the impact that it may be having on your life.

Signs that you may be self-medicating include:

  • Turning to substances when you feel sad, stressed or anxious
  • Extreme or sudden changes in mood, especially when substances are not present
  • Alcohol and other drugs exacerbate your mental health problems
  • Increased tolerance to substance use
  • Isolating from social events
  • Obsessive thoughts about how to obtain alcohol or other substances
  • Experiencing financial issues because of purchasing alcohol or other drugs
  • Loved ones are noticing or pointing out your substance use as problematic
  • Neglecting personal hygiene

Understanding the Harms of Self-Medication

Although substance use may provide relief from unpleasant feelings, it will only exacerbate mental health problems and symptoms over time. It is crucial to understand that self-medication is dangerous to an individual’s psychological and physical health. Not only does it increase the risk of developing substance addiction, but self-medication may also cause:

  • Dependency on a substance
  • Incorrect self-diagnosis
  • Delay regarding an individual seeking proper treatment and receiving professional medical advice
  • New mental health issues
  • Worsening of mental health conditions and symptoms
  • Increased risk of harm from drug interactions, especially with prescription medications
  • Decreased ability to experience pleasure from natural stimuli

Getting Help for Self-Medication

Anyone struggling with dependency on chemical substances for temporary relief from symptoms must get the help they need to recover from the harms of self-medication. There are a surplus of mental health and addiction treatment centers in the United States that offer various programs for individuals looking to heal from their mental health or substance use disorders.

Consider looking into co-occurring or dual-diagnosis treatment programs as they simultaneously treat your mental health and substance use diagnoses. If two conditions are present, and one is treated without the other, the chances of relapse increase for both diagnoses in the long term.

Behavioral therapies can help you link your emotional distress to your unhealthy behavior and help you develop healthier coping mechanisms when faced with adversity. If you recognize self-medicating behaviors in yourself or your loved one, take it as a valuable sign to seek professional help. Mental health concerns can be overwhelming, and there is no need to figure them out by yourself. Take the step you need today to have a healthier life without the dangers of self-medicating adding to your distress.

PaRC is a substance use and addiction treatment center dedicated to helping clients regain control over their lives. We have several treatment programs to help fit the unique needs of our clients, tailored to teens, young adults and adults. To learn more about our programs, don’t wait any longer. Give us a call today at (713) 939-7272.