Self-medication can be a dangerous practice where a person uses substances or takes medications to avoid their emotional problems. Instead of addressing the problem, they try to escape it. According to an article in the Journal of Basic and Clinical Pharmacy, doctors define self-medication as “the taking of drugs, herbs, or home remedies of one’s own initiative, or on the advice of another person, without consulting a doctor”.4
According to Healthline, researchers coined the term “self-medication” in 1985 when they described a person that uses alcohol or drugs as a way of coping with mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress.1 While a person may think they are escaping their problems, they may actually create issues as using alcohol and drugs typically make symptoms worse.
What is Self-Medicating?
The self-medication hypothesis (SMH) is a theory that people use medications or alcohol because they are suffering, not because they are seeking pleasure from the substances.2 Researchers have found that people who self-medicate may have experimented with a variety of drugs and medications and found using a certain medication helps to reduce their symptoms, even for a short time.
In 1997, an article published in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry updated the original article on self-medication using additional clinical data. The article expanded on the theory about why some people who use drugs become addicted while others do not. According to the Psychiatry Times, an estimated 10 to 20 percent of people who use drugs become addicted to them.
One study psychiatrists frequently cite in support of the self-medication theory is one called “Adverse Childhood Experiences” or ACE.3 This study enrolled more than 17,000 participants and asked a person about adverse experiences they had in childhood and then tracked their drug, alcohol, food, or smoking abuse. The researchers found the more abuses a person experienced as a child and teenager, the more likely they were to abuse drugs and alcohol.
Are There Different Types of Self-Medicating?
Some people may self-medicate with alcohol while others may have other “self-medication” options of choice. Examples of some of the ways a person may self-medicate include:
Self-Medicating with Food
Also known as comfort eating or emotional eating, turning to food as a means of self-medication is possible. If there is frequent emotional eating and binge-eating, there is an increased risk of weight gain and self-esteem concerns.
Self-Medicating with Caffeine Products
Caffeinated beverages, such as coffee and sodas, are ways that many use to try to artificially increase energy levels. Although caffeine is legal, it is a nervous system stimulant that allows a person to experience a high when consumed. Caffeine can also contribute to anxiety by speeding up the heart, resulting in feeling more jittery and on edge.
Self-Medicating with Alcohol
Many people have turned to alcohol as means to self-medicate their problems. This is especially true in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, according to Healthline. 1 Alcohol Abuse may temporarily lift mood, only to come crashing back down when the buzz wears off.
Self-Medicating with Marijuana
Cannabis and marijuana are drugs a person may use to self-medicate. According to Healthline, cannabis is one of the most widely used substances for self-medication in cases of depression.1 However, some studies have shown that marijuana in significant amounts can increase depression.
Self-Medicating with Pain Medicines and Heroin
While pain medications have uses in treating pain, some people have also used them as a means of self-medication. This can be a dangerous practice as excess pain medications can contribute to addiction and overdose.
Self-Medicating with Stimulants
Some may turn to stimulants, such as amphetamines or cocaine, as a means to achieve a quick euphoria. Those who suffer from depression often use stimulants to self-medicate.1
What Are the Dangers of Self-Medication?
Self-medication can be dangerous because it only masks underlying feelings instead of addressing the causes and problems. Additionally, those who self-medication may result in the use of dangerous substances that can cause overdose and lead to chronic health concerns. At the end of the day, self-medication only covers up mental illness, it does nothing to treat it, and in many cases, may make mental health worse.
In addition, a person may take medications as a form of self-medication because they have self-diagnosed themselves with a particular illness. For example, a person who has trouble concentrating may take someone else’s stimulant medications, such as Adderall, to try and improve their concentration without ever knowing if they truly have the condition or not.4 This relies on the assumption that the single medication is the best way to treat the condition when there are many available medications as well as lifestyle changes that could potentially help treat a condition.
What Are Signs You Are Self-Medicating?
Sometimes the line between treating something at home and seeking medical attention is a fine one. A person may struggle with identifying feelings of anxiety, depression, trauma, or other emotions and require medical assistance with an underlying issue. Some of the signs that a person may be self-medicating include:
With time, frequent and repeated use of medications can cause changes in the brain’s chemistry. The brain becomes dependent upon the chemicals experienced when using drugs or alcohol. This causes continuous drugs or alcohol-seeking behavior. This means losing control over the relationship with the substance. This can result in a spiral into a full-blown addiction, which can affect relationships, the ability to maintain a job, and overall health.
What Are the Treatments for Self-Medication?
Self-medication using drugs and alcohol is dangerous to a person’s health and ineffective at truly treating problems. With appropriate medications and participation in counseling, group therapies, or other approaches, healthy coping mechanisms are taught that provide the freedom to address true underlying issues.
First, suffering from substance abuse as a result of self-medicating is typically a result of a co-occurring disorder or dual diagnosis. An estimated 7.9 million people in the United States have a dual diagnosis, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).5 Treating a co-occurring disorder requires an approach called “integrated intervention, according to NAMI. These steps include seeking inpatient detoxification to break the addiction to drugs or alcohol. This treatment program type can involve tapering off medications or taking medications to minimize withdrawal symptoms.
Detoxification can take anywhere from five to seven days to occur, depending upon what types of substances are being abused. Some people may choose to complete an outpatient treatment program, where they go to a rehabilitation facility on a daily basis for several days.
Following the detoxification process, you may wish to explore other treatments that can help address the underlying reasons self-medication occurred. Examples include taking medications to treat depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or other conditions. Some people may also choose to participate in support groups or family therapy.
The treatments for self-medicating can depend upon the substance abused and underlying medical condition or conditions.
Self-medication can be a dangerous practice because it prevents or slows true healing. The prevailing theory regarding self-medication is that it is an approach where a person tries to escape their problems. This theory can help a person learn more about their addiction and what could be leading them to their substance abuse.
It’s important to recognize that self-medication can lead to addiction and health complications, including risks for overdose. If you are concerned that yourself or a loved one may be self-medicating, talk to a doctor or seek treatment at an addiction facility. Sometimes, it can take time to identify the deep-seated emotions or trauma that lead to the addiction.