Millions of people throughout the nation live with undiagnosed and untreated mental health disorders. For these individuals, feelings of anxiety, depression, paranoia, and general distress are a recurring and often expected part of everyday life.
When experimenting with alcohol or drugs, the feelings of euphoria and relaxation that result frequently trigger intense feelings of relief. Given that substance use makes people with untreated mental health issues feel better, they often return to these same behaviors again and again.
Those who self-treat frequently claim that they function better, feel better, and have fewer intense emotional episodes or mood swings when using. However, these beliefs are dangerous. Not only do they set the stage for addiction, but they also place drug users at an elevated risk of overdose. Moreover, self-treating with drugs or alcohol can actually make many underlying mental health disorders far worse.
What Is Self-Medicating?
Self-medication can mean many different things. At its most simple, self-medicating with drugs or self-medicating with alcohol is using substances to alleviate physical or psychological discomfort. Rather than having problems diagnosed and properly treated, people seek relief for themselves. Sadly, although self-medicating can often provide short-term relief, it generally causes more problems than it resolves.
At the heart of many mental health disorders that people commonly self-treat are issues directly relating to imbalanced brain chemistry. Given that substance use triggers “feel good” chemicals in the brain, the practice of self-medicating invariably alters brain chemistry further.
This can result in the gradual worsening of the very symptoms that drugs or alcohol were initially meant to resolve. As substance use becomes substance abuse, and eventually addiction, the personal, legal, and financial consequences of addiction can heighten a person’s psychological distress.
People can also self-medicate for physical illnesses, injuries, or chronic pain. In these instances, they may already have medication management plans in place, but they’re unhappy with the level of relief that current treatments are providing.
One of the most common types of drug addiction is an addiction to prescription drugs. Many people overlook or underestimate the dangers of overusing and misusing prescribed medications.
Given that these products have come from trusted sources, it may seem safe to assume that they’re incapable of causing harm. However, taking more drugs than a doctor has prescribed, buying prescription medications illegally, and pairing prescription drugs with illicit substances are all forms of self-medication. Any time that substance use isn’t managed by a licensed doctor or exceeds the recommendations of a treating physician, people are essentially treating themselves.
Self Medication Risk Factors
Stress and stressful experiences are both risk factors for self-medicating. People start self-medicating with drugs or alcohol when natural, sustainable coping strategies don’t work or aren’t fully understood. People who’ve lived traumatic lives or have had extremely traumatic experiences often start self-medicating as a means for contending with the pain of their trauma.
Undiagnosed mental health disorders that are co-occurring with substance use disorder are risk factors as well. These include:
- General anxiety disorder
- Major depressive disorder
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
- Bipolar disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
Even feelings of unresolved guilt or grief can lead to self-medication. Essentially, any time that a person has overwhelming stress or psychological angst, using drugs or alcohol can become a means for coping.
Unfortunately, self-medicating eliminates the need to look for more effective, healthier, and more sustainable coping strategies. It can also make people feel as though they are completely unable to deal with their circumstances, emotions, or environments without using drugs or alcohol.
Signs and Symptoms of Self Medicating
If you are using drugs or alcohol to make yourself feel better on a consistent basis, you’re likely self-medicating. When people are unable to achieve mood balance or a general sense of well-being without using drugs or alcohol, self-medication is both a solution and a likely cause.
People who self-medicate are generally aware that something is amiss with their normal functioning, chemistry, mindset, or behaviors, but they aren’t willing to seek proper diagnosis and treatment. In some cases, they may even believe that their own self-managed treatments work best. Anytime people believe that they feel better or function better because of drug or alcohol use, they are self-medicating.
When people initially self-medicate, they usually feel much better. They may be able to focus more, think more clearly, and achieve short-term feelings of relaxation and happiness. However, improvements like these tend to be very short-lived.
As drugs and alcohol increasingly undermine normal brain chemistry and normal brain functioning, feelings of depression, anxiety, sadness, and outright panic can heighten in intensity. The duration of these emotions often lengthens as well.
Why Self Medicating Is Dangerous
Self-medicating can be dangerous for many different reasons. Building a tolerance to the substances used is a big concern. People who self-medicate often need more drugs or alcohol to obtain the same feelings of relief. Gradually developing greater tolerance to any substance places a person at high risk of overdose.
When people self-medicate, they often do so with minimal understanding of how the substances they are using can impact their brains and bodies. This commonly causes existing problems to worsen and may facilitate the development of new physical or mental health issues. Moreover, when drugs or alcohol are paired with other substances, the risks of contraindication and negative reactions are largely unknown, and they are always high.
Seeking Treatment to Stop Self Medicating
Given that self-medication often makes people feel better, even if only in the short term, recognizing a developing addiction can be incredibly difficult. Many people who self-treat often live in denial. It can take time to recognize that self-treating doesn’t actually make you feel or perform better. It can also take time to overcome the fear of having to cope with pain, anxiety, anger, or trauma without substances.
At Mississippi Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center, we offer each of our clients highly customized support. We recognize the unique challenges that people face when self-medication is paired with addiction and underlying physical or mental health issues.
When attending our rehab program, you or your loved one will have the benefit of managed detox, and of ongoing mental health counseling and medical support. In our facility, we work hard to address addiction at its underlying causes through dual diagnosis treatment, and numerous options in therapy. We also take a holistic approach to promote healthy coping strategies, and balanced, sustainable lives.