Finding the typical face of someone who self-medicates is difficult to do, but finding some common mental health issues that lead to self-medicating is far too easy. Anxiety is one of these very common problems.
Self-medication doesn’t mean using over-the-counter (OTC) drugs to treat a simple headache or get some extra vitamin C. When you self-medicate, you are using drugs or alcohol in order to feel better emotionally.
Self-medicate? It’s just to calm me down
You may not even realize that you are self-medicating. You have a drink or use a painkiller because you feel less anxiety when you do. You feel more able to cope and get through the day. Things are just better and easier.
Test anxiety, big presentation anxiety, anxiety caused by fear or loneliness. Taking a drink is a great escape from many uncomfortable situations.
Over time, you need a few more drinks and another pill to help with the anxiety.
In fact, your anxiety is probably worse when you don’t self-medicate on a regular basis. You don’t feel like you need to ask a doctor for help, as long as you have drugs or pills at hand. Sad to say, you probably won’t even recognize when using drugs or alcohol to feel better has crossed an invisible line into dependency and then addiction.
You are spending a lot of time telling yourself, “Treatment is too expensive and it’s confusing. I’m doing okay, right? I’m not really anxious as long as I have a little something to calm me down.”
It’s easy to see that you get a big dose of denial when you self-medicate.
People who self-medicate often never have the original problem addressed because they feel like they can do it alone. Self-medication is an easy fix for the blues or for feeling anxious. They don’t see any value in a detox programs, dual diagnosis treatment centers or a multi-month inpatient rehab out of state somewhere. They don’t want to talk about their problems with a physician. Their doctor may even prescribe a medication for anxiety, but someone who self-medicates will often double up on the dose or take it more often. Self-medication means you think that you don’t need professional help to feel better.
More than 40 million adults in the United States have an anxiety disorder, according to the ADAA. This translates to 18% of the population! Many of these people are using drugs or alcohol to ease the emotional distress and pain that anxiety causes. This use of drugs or alcohol as an emotional painkiller isn’t just something that happens to young and middle-aged adults. Adolescents may find out just be sneaking a drink from the family liquor cabinet that it “helps”, and seniors who suffer the loss of a spouse may turn to self-medication during the grief process.
It is important to remember that people who self-medicate can have many types of mental health disorders:
- PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)
- OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder)
- Eating Disorders
- Bipolar Disorder
Crossing that invisible line from self-medicating to addiction is a slow and steady step. Are you sure it’s one you want to take?
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Sue Dungan is an emergency department RN who has seen far too many cases of self-medication.