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What is Self-Medication and Why Do People Do It?

Medically Verified: 2/1/24

Medical Reviewer

Chief Editor

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

When you face difficult times, it’s natural to reach toward something that will make you feel better. Nobody likes to feel sad, angry, lonely, anxious, or depressed.

People who struggle with mental illness experience symptoms on a daily basis that reduce their quality of life. Depression can lead to deep sadness, hopelessness, and anxiety. Trauma or PTSD can lead to panic attacks, flashbacks, nightmares, and poor social functioning. All mental illnesses affect people differently–but one thing they have in common is that they are all characterized by painful, uncomfortable symptoms from which people may seek relief.

One way individuals with untreated or undertreated mental health conditions may cope is by using drugs or alcohol for solace–a dangerous practice called “self-medication.”

What Does Self-Medicating Mean?

Self-medicating happens when someone uses drugs or alcohol to alleviate uninvited symptoms or feelings. It may involve abusing prescription medication by taking a higher dose than you are instructed to take, binge drinking, or using illegal drugs. Regardless of the way the substances are used, they must be used with the intention of alleviating an undesired symptom, such as depression, anxiety, or grief.[1]

Examples of self-medicating include:

  • Drinking alcohol to overcome the fear of social interaction
  • Taking an opioid to treat pain that wasn’t prescribed to you
  • Using Adderall or another stimulant to focus
  • Using substances to cope with symptoms of trauma or PTSD
  • Drinking or using drugs to cope with depression

It’s important to note that you do not need to have a formal medical diagnosis to self-medicate. Anyone who uses drugs or alcohol in a way that is not prescribed or recommended to cope with something else can be described as engaging in self-medication.

Why Do People Self-Medicate?

When you get sick, you probably go to the doctor. When you feel physical aches or pain, you may reach for an over-the-counter pain reliever. People who are diagnosed with depression may be prescribed an anti-depressant or coping skills from therapy that they can use to treat their symptoms.

But what happens when you don’t know what is wrong or what you can do to feel better? What happens when everything else you have tried seems to have failed? Better yet–what happens when you start drinking more regularly to deal with stress–as many Americans do–to find yourself somehow addicted to alcohol and unable to stop drinking just a few months later?

Most people who self-medicate don’t do so with the intention of becoming addicted. They do so to find relief from their current situation. While there are always healthy alternatives to drugs and alcohol, many people are unaware of how to identify and cope with their emotions. Others simply feel as though drugs and alcohol work better than everything else.[1]

Self-medication is an act that is always dangerous. In most circumstances, it ends up leading to a progressive addiction and a worsening of mental health symptoms.

Potential Risks and Dangers of Self-Medication

In the beginning, self-medicating may seem harmless. It may even go unnoticed for some time. But, as time goes on, using drugs or alcohol to cope can worsen existing mental health issues, cause new ones to appear, and spiral into a dangerous addiction.[2]

Dangers of self-medication include:

  • Making symptoms worse
  • Drugs or alcohol may interact with prescription medications making them less effective or causing unpleasant side effects
  • Triggering new symptoms or mental health problems
  • Delaying the process of seeking help for addiction
  • Preventing individuals from thinking clearly so they can’t make sound decisions

People don’t always self-medicate with illicit drugs or alcohol, either. People can also self-medicate using prescription drugs, food, nicotine, and even sex or intimate relationships. Regardless, all forms of self-medication can have devastating effects on your mental, physical, and emotional health.

Once medicating turns into drug or alcohol addiction, you could face the various difficulties people with addiction often face, including:

  • Harm your personal relationships
  • Impact your career
  • Get into legal trouble
  • Isolate yourself from loved ones
  • Harm your physical health
  • Suffer an overdose

If you or someone you love is using drugs or alcohol to self-medicate, it’s time to get help today.

Six Signs of Self-Medicating

Identifying when you or someone else is self-medicating isn’t always easy. After all, drinking alcohol and even binge drinking is very normal and socially acceptable in many cultures. In order to understand whether or not you are struggling with self-medication, you have to ask yourself what your motive is behind your substance abuse and how it is affecting your life.

Six signs that you or a loved one are self-medicating include:

  1. Using drugs or alcohol when feeling stressed, anxious, lonely, or depressed.
  2. Drugs and alcohol make you feel better at first, but then you feel even worse.
  3. You worry and get anxious when you don’t have access to drugs or alcohol.
  4. You have started to need to use more and more drugs or alcohol to get the relief you are seeking.
  5. Your problems keep getting bigger.
  6. Your friends, family, and loved ones are concerned about your well-being and/or your substance use.

If this sounds like you or someone you love, Carolina Center for Recovery can help you get the help you deserve.

Find Addiction Help for Yourself or a Loved One Today

Here at Carolina Center for Recovery, we know just how hard life can get sometimes, but we also know that there are better, healthier answers than drugs or alcohol. Regardless of your struggles, we can help you recover. Our dual diagnosis treatment program can diagnose, treat, and help you manage your underlying conditions while also putting your addiction behind you.

Don’t wait any longer for the holistic, compassionate care you need to embrace a better life. Call now to start your recovery journey.