Self-medication is a way to address how you feel through the use of alcohol, drugs, or even food. Whether you’re stressed or anxious or having trouble sleeping, self-medication is sometimes used to relax or find relief, even if temporary. Learn more about why people self-medicate, common self-medication signs, and how to begin the process of recovery.

Self-Medication Risk Factors

Any time you use drugs without the guidance of a medical professional or alcohol to manage a health issue, whether it be a physical or mental health condition, you are self-medicating. Sometimes addiction and mental health disorders exist together in a condition known as co-morbidity. The effects of addiction can exacerbate the mental health condition, or the mental health condition can cause the addiction. Self-medication is a response to an existing condition, so anyone with an existing condition and a history or predisposition to drug or alcohol use is at risk

Not everyone who struggles with their mental health has a formal diagnosis, which can make it easier to deny the act of self-medication and harder to identify substance use for what it is. With or without a formal diagnosis, self-medication risk factors also include the following:

  • A history of trauma
  • Intense or overwhelming emotional responses
  • Medical complications or chronic conditions
  • Difficult life circumstances, like a breakup or death of a loved one, financial trouble, work stress, and more
  • Normalization of substance abuse (e.g., family history of addiction)

Not all acts of self-medication look the same. Some may use illegal or recreational drugs to self-medicate, while others may use alcohol or nicotine. When they aren’t used as prescribed, prescription drugs can be used to self-medicate.

Signs of Self-Medication

Having a diagnosed mental illness or other risk factors for self-medication doesn’t inherently mean that someone is using substances to self-medicate. Take a look at common signs and examples of self-medication to get a better sense of how self-medication can manifest.

1. You Use Substances When Feeling Unwell

We all face difficult times and uncomfortable feelings. If you use substances to cope instead of talking to people you trust or taking actions to alter your situation, you may tend to self-medicate.
Many substances have perception-altering effects that can distract you from unwanted thoughts or numb you to physical pain. Substance use may also release serotonin and other mood-altering neurotransmitters, making you feel good in the moment.

2. You Need More of a Substance to Feel the Effects

Because of the way that substances interact with the brain, prolonged use of a substance can lead to increased tolerance. Tolerance occurs when the brain or body does not react to a substance as quickly as it used to. In other words, you begin to need more drugs or alcohol to feel the desired effect.

Each person’s tolerance to a substance will depend on a variety of factors ranging from medical history to weight. If your tolerance is increasing due to the frequency of substance use, it is a possible sign that you’re self-medicating with that substance.

3. You Worry About Substance Availability

It’s natural to stay on top of refilling life-saving or symptom-improving prescriptions as needed. It’s another thing entirely to worry that you won’t have access to illegal or recreational drugs, alcohol, or unprescribed prescriptions in the near future. If the thought of going without drugs or alcohol causes you distress or leads you to alter plans, you may need self-medication treatment.

4. You Need Substances for Social Events

It’s often easy to mask self-medication in social settings, especially when it comes to drinking and other legal recreational substance use. There is a difference between having a drink at a party because you’d enjoy one and needing a drink to get through a social interaction. Social drinking is a common form of self-medication for people with social anxiety. It is also often used to cope with triggering environments like family gatherings. While it may make these interactions feel more tolerable, it does not address the underlying problem for long-term healing.

5. You Can’t Focus Without Substance Use

Individuals with diagnosed attention deficit disorders may benefit from prescription drugs like Adderal or Ritalin; however, these prescription drugs are often overused or abused. Similarly, people may turn to illegal substances like cocaine or meth for a productivity boost. Stimulants may seem to cut through the internal noise of anxiety and other mental illnesses and allow you to focus. Drug use may provide temporary energy when you’re exhausted due to poor sleep hygiene. If you can’t get through a day of work or school without a stimulant you weren’t prescribed, you’re likely self-medicating.

6. You Can’t Sleep Without Substance Use

Getting a good night’s sleep can have a positive ripple effect on your day ahead. The inverse is also true. If you struggle to fall asleep or stay asleep, it’s understandable that you’d want to find a solution. The problem with self-medicating for sleep is that it creates a negative feedback loop. For example, you may need to drink alcohol to sleep, and your body becomes so accustomed to the depressant that it can’t sleep without it. Plus, going to sleep intoxicated means your body isn’t resting and healing as it’s meant to, leaving you more tired in the morning.

7. Your Problems are Growing

People self-medicate to address one or more difficult conditions. The problem is that relying on self-medication to cope can cause problems in other areas of your life. You might self-medicate to avoid the stress of your job, but your self-medication gets in the way of your job performance, creating more strain in the workplace. When substance use has a negative impact on other areas of your life, but you can’t seem to curb your usage, it crosses into the territory of addiction.

Self-Medication Treatment

Though self-medication may seem to keep certain symptoms at bay, it can cause problems including:

  • Worsening physical health
  • Worsening mental health
  • Negative prescription interactions

Self-medication treatment begins with addiction recovery. A combination of detoxing, clinical support, and psychiatry is used to help patients safely transition to sobriety, paving the way for patients to learn more about themselves, their health, and what it was that led them to self-medicate. In turn, they can discover healthier ways to find relief.

Contact CWC to Begin Self-Medication Recovery

Self-medication rates are higher than we often suspect. Those who struggle with it may not realize that they’re using substances to avoid their problems or numb their pain. Comprehensive Wellness Centers can help. At CWC, we take a dual diagnosis approach. We understand that addiction doesn’t exist in a vacuum and that substance abuse arises from underlying causes. Learn more about our recovery programs to find the treatment that’s right for you.