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What is Self-Medicating?

For generations, people have self-medicated to cure an ailment or illness or to cope with life, often turning to alcohol or over-the-counter drugs like Tylenol. The internet makes it easy to self-diagnose and self-medicate without ever seeing a doctor. But often self-medicating comes at the expense of your health and can lead to addiction.

Self-medication is the treatment of self-recognized or self-diagnosed health problems typically with over-the-counter medicines.

Self-medication is quite common. Someone with a headache can buy aspirin or Tylenol and feel better. Others, whose anxiety may flare up in certain social situations, might drink a quick beer to loosen up before a big event.

These are mild examples of self-medication. There are extreme and dangerous instances where someone relies heavily on alcohol, prescription medications or illegal drugs as a remedy. Not only can this type of self-medication lead to addiction, but it could cost you your life.

Why Self-Medicate?

Every day, millions of people take over-the-counter drugs or supplements in their attempt to treat common health problems. It’s convenient, cost and time efficient and saves them a doctor’s visit and a costly bill.

The internet allows individuals to conduct their own research and make a self-diagnosis, which is often wrong. With so many products available at the local pharmacy and even the gas station, people are more likely to self-medicate than to see a physician.

Manreading prescription bottle label

There are a number of reasons why people self-medicate. Some feel self-medicating will create a short-term fix. Others choose to do so out of fear or shame to mask their condition. Some want to avoid rising health care costs or perceived inadequate care. Oddly enough, some consumers see pharmacists not as trained health care professionals, but as employees looking to increase profits; this creates distrust among consumers.

In the 1980s, Dr. Edward Khantzian, clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical Center, developed the “self-medication hypothesis of drug abuse,” which suggests that a person’s choice of substances is tied to their emotional state. Individuals with depression, for instance, might turn to amphetamines due to their stimulating properties. Or someone with severe anxiety might turn to alcohol, which has calming effects.

There are numerous consequences to self-medicating that are often overlooked.

Consequences of Self-Medicating

Sometimes self-medicating works out well. You take a Tylenol, and your headache goes away. But there are many ways self-medicating can go awry, including:

Ironically, a desire to self-medicate in order to avoid a hospital visit may, ultimately, send a person to the hospital. Medical experts implore individuals with chronic illnesses or disorders to seek the advice of a medical professional.

Substances Commonly Used to Self-Medicate

People use a variety of substances to alleviate mental and physical discomfort. These perceived remedies carry great risks when abused.

Alcohol

Given its ubiquity, many turn to alcohol, a depressant, to relieve physical pains or mental fears. They find it to be a quick, accessible solution to their problems. But as they rely more and more on the substance to change their mood or behavior, it often gives way to a long-term addiction. Alcohol also affects the body, negatively impacting your stomach, skin and muscles.

“Once a using pattern begins, often innocently enough, it can come to have a life of its own. No longer is the person downing a drink — now the drink is downing the person.” – Dr. Tian Dayton, clinical psychologist and author

Opioids

More than 32 million people worldwide use opioids annually, according to the World Drug Report. Some use substances like codeine and methadone as a means of self-medication, notably for disorders such as depression. Heavy opioid use can worsen existing symptoms and lead to addiction or even death.

Marijuana

Marijuana is one of the more popular drugs used for self-medication. It is a widely popular psychoactive drug that many people, including teenagers, use to help cope with everyday stresses of life.

For some, marijuana relieves anxiety, allowing them to leave their homes and face the world. It helps them feel better physically, emotionally and mentally. Unfortunately, users feel better only temporarily and end up feeling worse once the effects wear off. Chronic users who self-medicate with marijuana can become addicted to the drug and face worsening symptoms.

Ties to Co-Occurring Disorders

Many people who suffer with mental disorders, such as depression, ADHD and post-traumatic stress disorder, self-medicate. This often turns into a co-occurring disorder — the combination of a mental health disorder and a substance use disorder.

Sixty-five percent of people with PTSD have a co-occurring disorder, and alcoholism risks are high for those who self-medicate. People with ADHD may turn to an illegal drug like cocaine, a stimulant with properties similar to Ritalin.

PTSD and Co-Occuring Disorder fact illustration

Studies show that drug dependency exacerbates mental health disorders, especially if illicit drugs are used to self-medicate.

In 2006, a study of 23 individuals with PTSD and a cocaine addiction found that nearly two-thirds of those who reduced their cocaine use saw improvement in their PTSD symptoms. In addition, 86 percent of those who increased their cocaine consumption saw a worsening of their PTSD symptoms.

People with a mental disorder must approach self-medication with extreme caution. At best, drugs and alcohol temporarily mask the issue. At worst, your life could slip beyond your control.

Help for Those Who Self-Medicate

Treatment is available for those who self-medicate to the point of addiction. Maybe it’s time for you to seek help with your drug dependency.

If you suspect you have a mental disorder, seek treatment immediately instead of attempting to self-medicate. Licensed physicians or psychiatrists can prescribe medications based on your medical history.

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