Stressors are hiding around every corner these days and they only appear to be multiplying. Mental health problems such as anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and other mental health concerns are increasing at an alarming rate in people of all ages. At the same time, we are seeing an increase in drug abuse, alcohol dependence, and deaths of despair. Why is this? This trend is occurring because more people are self-medicating as a coping mechanism for life’s challenges. As people self-medicate more, their mental health problems usually increase and what started as mental health problems often turn into substance use disorders.
This cycle of self-medication is a vicious circle that often requires the help of a mental health professional to be broken. Let’s take a closer look at self-medication, why people self-medicate, what harm can be done by self-medicating, and what treatment options are available to better gain relief from the negative emotions associated with stress.
What is Self-Medicating?
Self-medicating is using an activity or substance such as drugs, alcohol, or even prescription medications, to find temporary relief from mental health problems. Instead of seeking professional help, these people drink alcohol or use illegal drugs to alleviate mental health symptoms. In some cases, substance abuse involves misusing prescription medication such as ADHD medication or pain relievers.
Self-medicating can also involve participating in activities such as sleeping too much or becoming a workaholic. Unfortunately, these can often contribute to mental health conditions. In most cases, however, substance abuse is the most common self-medicating activity and is the one that most often requires outside help in order to get through it.
Why Do People Self Medicate?
The most common reason people self-medicate is that society often places a great stigma on getting help for mental health issues, making self-medication the most convenient option for treating their symptoms. Mental health issues cause many symptoms that are difficult to deal with, and when a person also has a co-occurring disorder such as generalized anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, or PTSD, their symptoms can become overwhelming. Rather than face the stigma, these people turn to substance abuse and other forms of self-medication.
Another reason that people may begin self-medicating to deal with stress is that they feel understimulated. We live in a society where we expect every moment to be filled with activity. We fill hours with video games and social media and that fills our brains with dopamine. When we feel a lull in this constant activity, people may feel so uncomfortable that they turn to drugs or alcohol to relieve their lack of stimulation.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
It’s not uncommon to have a glass of wine after a stressful day at work. It’s easy to have a drink to relieve the symptoms of anxiety. Our society is very tolerant of alcohol use, and self-medicating to deal with stress or the physical and mental symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder as they are not likely to draw much attention. However, using alcohol or drugs in this manner can be very dangerous.
Major Depressive Disorder
Self-medicating for depression is one of the most common reasons for substance abuse. Chronic stress can worsen the symptoms of depression. People will take a drug that makes them feel energetic to relieve the tiredness and emotional weariness that depression often brings. They might take a drink or sleeping pill at night to combat insomnia.
Serious Mental Illness
Mental health disorders cause a multitude of symptoms. Not only will stress compound these symptoms, but the very existence of the mental health issue can make dealing with stress overwhelming. Self-medication helps give temporary relief from the symptoms.
Chronic Physical Pain
So often, a person will seek help for a medical issue that has them in chronic pain. Doctors often will prescribe a pain reliever. The problem with pain relievers is that your body quickly becomes dependent on the medication and requires a larger dose in order to be effective. When a doctor won’t increase the dosage, a person may decide self-medicating is the only option. They will take more medication than prescribed or turn to illegal drugs to deal with the pain and the stress the pain causes.
Feeling like you have to constantly be performing, achieving, and dealing with an economy that makes it difficult to even provide the necessities for yourself and your family, can place one under extreme stress. We see everyone around us seemingly breezing through life and we feel somehow deficient because we feel overwhelmed and frozen with fear of what the future may hold if our act is not together. We self-medicate in order to relieve some of that stress and help us cope, or at least we think, with a stressful life.
Ways People Self Medicate
Alcohol is one of the biggest substances people use to self-medicate. After all, alcohol is legal and it is seen at most social events we attend. It often starts with a drink or two when we get home from work in order to decompress and relax after a day of stress. We use it to sleep soundly so we can face another stress-filled day tomorrow. Society glorifies drinking so we don’t see its use as a problem when we use it for self-medicating.
Illegal drug use has been steadily increasing over the past several years. The recent COVID-19 crisis caused people to isolate, which further increased symptoms of mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression. We faced trauma and grief watching our loved ones fall victim to illness. We are now coming out on the other side of that crisis but we see increasing unrest in the world and we have lost touch with how to connect to others. Self-medicating with drugs helps many to process this new reality we live in. Drugs are readily available and make life seem a bit more pleasant and easy to deal with for a time.
Many people facing chronic pain issues found their visits to doctors limited. In-person pain management options such as physical therapy became something we couldn’t do for a time. Yet, the stress that comes from chronic pain was still there. Doctors started prescribing more pain medication to help their patients cope. People became more dependent on them.
What are the Symptoms of Stress?
Sometimes we don’t recognize the symptoms we are experiencing are a result of extreme stress.
- You feel Irritable, or angry all the time.
- You are easily overwhelmed by even minor things.
- You experience increased anxiety
- You become depressed and unable to enjoy life.
- It feels like you’ve lost your sense of humor.
- You are worried or tense almost all the time, even when you are sleeping.
- Feelings of loneliness increase, even when you are among people.
- Existing mental health problems are getting worse.
Why is Self Medication Harmful?
Self-medicating by substance abuse is harmful because it does not eliminate the feelings you are experiencing. You are still being affected mentally and physically by the stress. In addition, you are increasing your problems by subjecting yourself to addiction or substance abuse disorders. Substance abuse, even as a means of coping creates even greater issues. It often worsens underlying mental health conditions and this makes dealing with stress even more difficult. There are much healthier ways to deal with stress. Let’s take a look at the most useful ones.
Ways to Manage Symptoms of Stress in a Healthy Manner
If you have been self-medicating for stress, you may be facing a substance use disorder. In order to learn better techniques to cope with symptoms of stress, you need to consider outpatient mental health treatment to learn healthier and more adaptive coping mechanisms.
Some ways you can learn to deal with stress in a healthy way that doesn’t cause more damage include the following:
Peer Support Groups
A peer support group can help you with mental health or substance abuse treatment. They can also give you the emotional support you need to deal with everyday stress. You will be able to verbally vent and can find advice from others who may be further along on this journey to cope with the stress we all face in a non-judgmental fashion. It is also a great way to be a part of a supportive community of people who can hold each other accountable to prevent unhealthy self-medication.
Learning Stress-Relieving Techniques
You will definitely benefit from learning stress-relieving techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, and mindfulness. People in a peer support group may help and a professional will definitely be able to point you in the right direction.
Professional help is a great way to gain knowledge about dealing with stress without self-medicating. Online and virtual therapy options have become normalized and they are not going anywhere.
Reaching out to an online mental health professional like the therapists and psychiatrists at Clear Behavioral Health’s Virtual Program may help alleviate the stress that can come from asking for help. If you or a loved one is struggling with self-medicating, contact us today.