While hardships and stress are a normal part of life, it’s still tough to live through. We’re not born knowing how to deal with emotional issues, mental health conditions, trauma, or stress. It’s through our individual experiences that we learn, slowly, what works and what doesn’t. For many Americans, our growing concern is how to feel better immediately.  A natural reaction may be to seek out alcohol, medication, or illicit drugs for quick relief. Numerous scientific studies have uncovered the dangers of self-medication. Still, this debunked treatment method persists.

People commonly report using substances–both legal and illegal–to cope with mental illnesses like mood and anxiety disorders, stress, and trauma. Self-medicating can come at a high-cost, yet it never truly addresses underlying issues. So why do so many Americans ignore the dangers of self-treatment? 

issues with self medicating

What is Self-Medicating? 

Using alcohol or drugs to manage mental health concerns and physical conditions is known as self-medicating. 

Facing something abnormal, demanding, stressful, or traumatic may trigger desperation for a way out. A way to manage heightened emotions is seeking an alternative that can combat negative issues with feelings of euphoria, relaxation, solace, and even faux support. Even if it means the positive feelings are ineffective and short-lived, which many are. A person may turn to alcohol, prescription drugs, or illegal drugs in order to deal with situations beyond their control. However, there are associated dangers of self-medicating.

Self-medicating practices impact millions of Americans annually. Percentages often change depending on the specific condition for which the treatment is meant. According to the American Addiction Centers, for example:

  • 22% of people with an anxiety disorder reported self-medicating with drugs and alcohol
  • More than 21% with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) used alcohol or drugs to cope with their disorder
  • 23% of people with major depression have self-medicated
  • 41% with bipolar disorder have self-medicated

Additionally, self-medicating can occur even if an individual doesn’t have a formal mental health diagnosis. Grief and abuse can also kick-start substance abuse. 

What is the Self-Medicating Hypothesis?

Since the 1970s, the medical community contends that self-medication develops to cope with stress in the absence of adequate solutions or social relationships. In other words, drug use is an attempt to fill the gap left by limited medical options. In theory, abused substances help individuals relieve painful effects or provide a sense of control over emotions.

The opioid and prescription drug abuse epidemic is considered one of the most prevalent public health threats for Americans nationwide. New research suggests that surging cases of addiction and overdoses can be linked to chronic pain. A study produced by the Boston University School of Medicine and Boston Medical Center found most patients misusing drugs and alcohol have chronic pain. Many use these substances to self-medicate their pain.

Furthermore, the theory provides new insight into treating alcohol and drugs. Clinicians have an opportunity to address underlying issues, like pain or mental health, rather exclusively focusing on misuse of alcohol and drugs. 

Forms of Self-Medication

Every substance on the market–both legal and illegal–has a unique chemical makeup. Coinciding with the self-medicating hypothesis, each drug available has its own practical application. For example, coffee is a well-known stimulant consumed by millions. Coffee may be the perfect way to alleviate tiredness temporarily. Unfortunately, its effects wear off, causing drastic dips in insulin levels. In the long-term, it doesn’t resolve underlying issues like exhaustion and lack of stimulation. It may even cause other health problems. 

The correlation between drugs and emotional or physical ailments reveals the true dangers of self-medication. While alcohol and drugs may temporarily alleviate mental health or chronic pain symptoms, they also exacerbate them and can lead to additional psychological and physical concerns. Here are few forms of self-medication to be aware of.

dangers of self medication

Self Treatment with Alcohol

Substances: Beer, Wine, hard liquor

Dangers of Self-Medication: addiction, legal troubles, risky behavior, causes mental and physical problems

In low amounts, alcohol can produce feel-good emotions that help a person feel relaxed, confident, and even social. It can also reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. These temporary effects might suggest that alcohol is an ideal match to combat signs of emotional turmoil, mental disorders, and social anxiety. 

However, when used regularly, alcohol consumption is known to cause or contribute to disease onset, plus numerous other negative impacts like risky behavior, poor judgment, and submission to peer pressure. According to the American Addiction Centers, alcohol is also one of the most abused substances in America. 

Self-Treatment and Psychostimulants

Substances: Cocaine, amphetamines, nicotine, MDMA 

Dangers of Self-Medication: heart failure, overdose, addiction

Some of the most well-known prescribed psychostimulants include Adderall and Ritalin. Other illicit stimulants like cocaine, MDMA (ecstasy and molly), and meth are easy to obtain. Users may seek these types of drugs due to intense feelings of euphoria. 

Long term, however, psychostimulants can cause extensive physical damage, particularly for the body’s cardiovascular system. Stimulants also create intense highs by flooding the brain with pleasurable neurotransmitters known as dopamine, resulting in a higher likelihood of dependency. The effects of substances like cocaine are short-lived and can ultimately cause physical and mental fatigue, depression, and in some cases, death. 

Self-Treatment and Opiate/Opioids

Substances: Codeine, methadone, heroin, Fentanyl, Oxycodone

Dangers of Self-Medication: addiction, depression, slow breathing, slowed heart rates, death

Opioids block pain messages sent from the body through the spinal cord to the brain. While they can effectively relieve pain, opioids carry some risks and can be highly addictive. The risk of addiction is exceptionally high when opioids are used to manage chronic pain over a long period of time.

Opioids can make your brain and body believe the drug is necessary for survival. As you learn to tolerate the dose you’ve been prescribed, you may find that you need even more medication to relieve the pain — sometimes resulting in addiction. More than two million Americans misuse opioids, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and every day more than 90 Americans die from an opioid overdose.

online substance abuse programs

AspenRidge REACH: Online Treatment

Turning to alcohol or drugs to cope with difficult situations and feelings often the first step toward substance abuse. With time, self-medication can lead to addiction or alcohol use disorder (AUD). Unfortunately, self-medicating with prescription medications or illicit drugs doesn’t actually help  solve the underlying concerns or issues. Instead, ongoing substance abuse can lead to increased pain, mental health struggles, and difficulties finding proper coping mechanisms. Addiction and self-medicating become a vicious cycle and fuel guilt, shame, and further mental health concerns. 

AspenRidge REACH provides dual diagnosis care through virtual systems, allowing for flexibility while in treatment. Our online addiction programs are designed to address issues as they arise from substance abuse and underlying mental health or trauma. The dangers of self-medication are real. Our experienced and licensed clinicians are trained in treating substance dependency and identifying sources that triggered drug or alcohol misuse. Through our comprehensive programs, you can quickly find a treatment path that’s right for you, and we can assist with building the skills needed to overcome self-medicating habits. 

Our programs include:

At AspenRidge REACH, we understand that every situation is unique. Your therapist will work with you to create an individualized treatment plan specific to your needs. Don’t wait, and contact our 24/7 support center directly at 833-90-REACH.