Why Do So Many Addicts Self-Medicate?

Dane O'Leary June 19, 2020

People turn to drugs or alcohol for different reasons. Some buckle under peer pressure, some are curious about its effects, and some seek substances because they want to change how they’re feeling. When someone uses drugs to dull a painful demeanor or improve a depressed mood, it’s considered self-medicating. 

This article aims to explain the dynamics of self-medicating behavior a little bit better and shed light on why self-medicating is so prevalent among people battling addiction. Let’s start with what it means to self-medicate.

What Does It Mean to Self-Medicate? 

Self-medicating is when someone uses substances, alcohol, or prescribed medications to find relief from symptoms of mental illness. In most cases, the symptoms a person is trying to find relief from, stem from an undiagnosed or untreated mental illness. But, it’s also a possibility that someone is self-medicating because a diagnosed condition is being ineffectively treated and they’re battling to cope with side-effects of their illness in a healthy way.

Self-medicating is, fundamentally, a coping mechanism.

When healthy coping mechanisms aren’t in place, self-medicating becomes an emotional crutch. It’s used for dealing with mental health issues and generally all life’s challenges, stresses, and troubles. Self-medicating is fundamentally a coping mechanism. 

Why Self-Medicating Is Bad for You 

Self-medicating poses a very real risk of turning into a severe, co-occurring substance use disorder. This is besides the obvious health concerns associated with substance abuse and the known dangers of using prescription medications without medical supervision.

But how does a person go from seeking relief through self-medicating to a diagnosis of substance use disorder? When someone self-medicates, the body (and mind) become accustomed to this unhealthy mode of relief. Over time, repeated self-medicating leads to drug tolerance, and eventually, need heavier and heavier doses of the drug are needed to experience the same level of relief. 

Self-medicating also leads to physical dependency, meaning a person reaches a point where they aren’t able to function without the substance they use to self-medicate. This destabilizes the brain’s chemistry, paves the way for substance use disorders, and exacerbates the already underlying health condition. 

In simpler terms: people turn to mind-altering substances to blunt the symptoms of a health problem (in other words, they self-medicate the symptoms), and in doing so become addicted to these substances. Self-medicating an untreated illness with drugs leads to a point where a person is now suffering from addiction alongside the initial underlying, untreated condition.  

Why Some Addicts Self-Medicate 

Considering possible triggers for self-medicating behavior alongside the high comorbidity rates between addiction and other mental illnesses, it becomes clear that many addicts self-medicate to cope with a co-occurring disorder. 

Substance abuse commonly occurs with conditions such as PSTD, depression, and anxiety disorders. This sheds light on the correlations between substance abuse and self-medicating triggers like trauma, anxiety, stress, and emotional pain. This also reinforces thinking that addiction is regularly a result of continuous bouts of self-medicating existing mental illnesses.

The symptoms of a co-occurring condition can translate into triggers for self-medicating behavior. Although this varies from person to person, these are common reasons why people self-medicate: 

  • To dull the lingering effects of trauma;
  • To escape reality and relieve anxiety;
  • For stress relief;
  • For emotional or physical pain relief;
  • To reduce side-effects of taking other medications or other medical conditions.

To those who self-medicate, using alcohol or drugs is helping them because of how these mind-altering substances curb their pain and relieve their angst. But from an onlooker’s perspective, self-medicating is unhealthy and unhelpful although this isn’t how the person with the substance use disorder sees it. 

Another question is whether self-medicating with certain drugs is more dangerous than others. Some substances are more addictive than others but any form of unsupervised substance use puts a person at risk for developing an addiction. 

Person passed out from taking too many drugs
Photo: Reggi Tirtakusumah

How Different Substances Suggest Different Types of Self-Medicating

When someone self-medicates, the substance they choose to self-medicate with may reflect something more about the underlying issue they’re looking to resolve.

  • Stimulants like cocaine, methamphetamine, Ritalin, or Adderall are typically substances of choice for people who struggle to focus or are feeling depressed and depleted of energy.  
  • People battling insomnia, anxiety, social stress, or want to try and escape from reality tend to turn to depressants like sleep medications, alcohol, and benzodiazepines
  • For people seeking pain relief or looking for something to help them relax, opioids or prescription pain killers are modes of self-medication.  

When Does Self-Medicating Become A Problem? 

Some might argue that taking medication sporadically or having a drink, every now and then when life gets to you, is harmless. This might be the case for some, but self-medicating is a slippery slope, and when it comes to mental health issues it’s always best to err on the side of caution. So, what then are the warning signs of self-medicating?

  • Do you drink or take drugs every time you feel anxious, down, stressed, or upset?
  • Do you feel worried if you can’t have a drink or take drugs?
  • Have your loved ones voiced concern over your drinking or drug habits?
  • Does your demeanor deteriorate when you drink or take drugs?
  • Are you facing more and more problems? Struggles at work? Relationship issues? Financial troubles?

If you’ve answered yes to these questions, then it’s likely you’re self-medicating, which means that it’s time to take stock of your wellbeing and ask for help. 

Silicon Beach Treatment Center: Where Self-Medicating Stops and Sobriety Starts 

The substance abuse treatment programs at our Los Angeles rehab, help clients get sober while learning how to develop healthier coping mechanisms. We offer partial hospitalization (PHP), intensive outpatient (IOP), and outpatient (OP) addiction treatment. 

Whether you’re looking for IOP in Southern California or upscale LA sober living options, we can help. Get in touch today.

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