Roughly 50 percent of Americans who suffer from mental illnesses also suffer from addiction and commonly rely on drugs and alcohol to escape their symptoms. Self-medicating is one of the leading causes of addiction, and happens when a person uses drugs and alcohol to cope with emotionally damaging situations or to mask symptoms of underlying health problems. Stress, physical pain, and mental illness are just some common health conditions that can drive people to self-medicate.
While it’s not necessarily bad or uncommon to end a busy, stressful day with a beer or glass of wine once in a while, this behavior can become problematic and life-threatening if it becomes a regular routine. Illicit drug use of any kind — including that involving prescription drugs — is also life-threatening, and can have adverse, opposite effects on one’s health. In any case, using drugs and alcohol to self-medicate can be dangerous and risky, and lead to dependency, addiction, overdose, and death.
Here’s a closer look at why people self-medicate, and at the link between self-medicating and addiction.
Why Do People Self Medicate?
Stress, physical pain, and mental illnesses all produce symptoms that can be extremely tough to handle — especially when these conditions are diagnosed as chronic. Those who self-medicate and use drugs and alcohol as outlets often lack the skills, knowledge, and/or resources needed to overcome these conditions using healthier methods. For instance, a person who suffers chronic pain and self-medicates using painkillers may not be aware that alternative treatments like acupuncture and massage can also treat chronic pain effectively while offering no risk for chemical dependency and addiction.
Here are common reasons people self medicate.
A high number of Americans report suffering from moderate to high stress on a consistent basis, with 44 percent admitting that their stress levels have gradually increased within the last five years. The most common stressors among Americans revolve around money, the U.S. economy, and their jobs and careers.
Stress produces a range of adverse symptoms that are both physical and psychological in nature. Common symptoms of stress include headaches, low energy levels, and constant worrying.
Since stress is a normal human response to situations that threaten your overall livelihood, the best way to handle stress is to learn healthy coping methods that benefit your overall well-being. For instance, exercise, yoga, and deep breathing are all healthy, effective ways to naturally reduce stress. When left untreated, addiction and stress can lead to overall worsened physical and mental health problems.
Pain affects more people in the U.S. than diabetes, heart disease, and cancer combined. The ongoing U.S. opioid epidemic has been caused in part by chronic pain since the majority of Americans who suffer pain are prescribed opioids for pain management. Painkillers reduce pain by binding to opioid receptors in the brain that control feelings of pain and pleasure.
People who suffer from chronic pain such as that caused by injury, surgery and some cancer treatments may use drugs and alcohol to relieve their pain. A recent study analyzed nearly 600 people who abused drugs and alcohol and found that 87 percent did so to self-medicate for chronic pain. Evidence also shows that up to 29 percent of patients who take opioids for chronic pain abuse their medications and that up to 12 percent of these individuals eventually become addicted to their painkillers.
3. Mental Illness
Depression and anxiety are the two most common mental health disorders in the U.S. In 2015, roughly 16.1 million American adults suffered at least one major depressive episode in the past year, which represented 6.7 percent of the U.S. adult population. Anxiety and anxiety disorders affect roughly 18.1 percent of American adults every year, with nearly 23 percent of those cases classified as severe.
Symptoms of mental illnesses range in scope and severity depending on the diagnosis. For instance, common symptoms of depression include feelings of sadness, guilt, and apathy, while common symptoms of PTSD— an anxiety disorder — include flashbacks, fear, and nightmares.
Self Medicating: A Leading Cause of Addiction
There are countless reasons a person might self medicate using drugs and alcohol. For one, alcohol and illicit drugs may be cheaper alternatives to prescription drugs and therapy for some who suffer chronic pain and mental illnesses. Drugs and alcohol may also be more easily accessible than other treatments proven safe, effective, and low-risk — especially for those who can no longer access painkillers on behalf of new policies and prescribing methods in wake of the opioid epidemic.
Some people self-medicate without knowing that doing so is dangerous and risky, and could lead to dependence and addiction. Those who abuse prescription drugs, or use prescription drugs in ways other than directed may not know their behavior is illegal and may assume these drugs are safe for anyone to use since they’re prescribed by doctors. Some people may even self-medicate to keep their stress and mental illnesses a secret from others and to avoid stigma and possible backlash associated with their careers and relationships.
Unfortunately, while self-medicating may seem like an effective way to relieve certain problems, this practice offers only short-term relief and can lead to more serious health problems and complications down the road — including addiction. Self-medicating fails to address the root cause of the problem and can worsen symptoms of pain, stress, and mental illness.
How to Tell if Someone is Self Medicating with Drugs or Alcohol
There are roughly 20.2 million American adults who suffer from substance use disorders in the U.S. Of these individuals, roughly 7.9 million suffer from substance use disorders and co-occurring mental health disorders.
While not everybody who suffers from mental illness, stress, or pain uses drugs and alcohol to self-medicate, the risk for substance abuse and addiction is substantially higher among this population.
Here are signs that indicate a person may be self-medicating using drugs and alcohol.
1. They Relieve Negative Emotions using Drugs and Alcohol
A person might be self-medicating if they use drugs and alcohol to relieve any negative emotions such as boredom, stress, sadness, and anger. If you know someone who instantly turns to these substances to “cure” negative feelings without trying to recognize or address the root cause of their emotions, it’s possible they may be self-medicating and suffer from addiction.
2. Their Symptoms Worsen when using Drugs and Alcohol
Using drugs and alcohol to self-medicate is often counterproductive to relieving stress, mental illness, and pain. Research shows that a person with chronic pain who misuses or abuses painkillers can experience increased sensitivity to pain — a condition known as hyperalgesia. A person self-medicating with a mental illness like depression may experience worsened symptoms such as severe irritability, sadness, and suicidal ideation.
3. Drugs and Alcohol are Interfering with Their Livelihood
Substance abuse causes a range of problems that can negatively interfere with one’s career, education, relationships, and overall livelihood. Self-medicating can lead to decreased performance at work or school, financial problems, and rifts between spouses and family members. If you notice that your friend or loved one is running into these types of problems, it’s possible they may be self-medicating.
5 Additional Causes of Addiction
While self-medicating is a leading cause of addiction, there are other leading causes that also stand out among Americans who suffer from substance use disorders. Everyone who suffers from addiction does so for their own unique reasons, under their own unique set of circumstances.
Here are five other top causes of addiction in the U.S.
Certain environmental risk factors surrounding community, family, and friends can increase a person’s likelihood of becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol. For instance, a person who spends time in environments where drug and alcohol abuse is accepted and encouraged is more likely to suffer from addiction than their counterparts. Children who grow up surrounded by these negative influences and who have easy access to drugs and alcohol are also at risk for addiction on behalf of the environment.
An estimated 40 to 60 percent of a person’s vulnerability to addiction can be directly attributed to genetics. A person who has parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and siblings who suffer from substance use disorders are often predisposed to also suffering from addiction. Recognizing and understanding the role genetics can play in addiction can help protect you and your loved ones from this chronic relapsing brain disease.
3. Drug Use at an Early Age
Children and teens who experiment with drugs and alcohol at an early age are often more likely to suffer from addiction later in life. Roughly 74 percent of American adults between the ages of 18 and 30 who suffer from substance use disorders tried drugs and alcohol for the first time before the age of 17. Keeping youth away from drugs and alcohol for as long as possible can help stave off the risk for addiction.
4. Taking a Highly Addictive Drug
Some drugs carry a higher risk for dependence and addiction than others, such as heroin, crack cocaine, and crystal meth. A recent study found that one in every five patients who use opioid painkillers for 10 days become long-term users, and face a significantly high risk for addiction. Other drugs that are highly addictive include cocaine, painkillers, and benzodiazepines.
5. Brain Restructuring due to Chronic Exposure
Chronic use of drugs and alcohol can cause lasting changes to the brain by altering neurotransmitters responsible for memory, emotions, and normal bodily functions. Most drugs increase the brain’s production of dopamine — a feel-good neurotransmitter that regulates feelings of reward, motivation, and pleasure. A brain that adapts to the regular presence of drugs that control these functions will eventually stop working normally on its own, and begin to rely on these substances — resulting in dependence and addiction.
Getting Addiction Help Before It’s Too Late
It’s never too late to get help for addiction — regardless of one’s age, economic status, and the length of time they’ve been suffering from addiction. A person who uses drugs and alcohol to self-medicate can achieve overall improved health and sobriety by going through detox and therapy at an addiction treatment center. Detox and therapy treat addiction as a whole so patients can maintain sobriety and benefit from a lower risk for relapse in the months and years following treatment.
Those who suffer from co-occurring disorders like addiction and stress can overcome both disorders at addiction treatment centers that combine detox with therapy. Detox helps patients safely withdraw from drugs and alcohol, while therapy helps patients overcome any and all underlying root causes of addiction — including stress and mental illness. Patients who become addicted to drugs after self-medicating for chronic pain can work with doctors and therapists to find other effective ways to treat chronic pain that won’t lead to problems with substance abuse.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy, personal therapy, and group therapy are often used to treat co-occurring disorders after a patient finishes detox. These therapies teach patients about healthier ways to manage co-occurring disorders, along with skills that allow them to overcome triggers that once led to drug and alcohol abuse. Most rehab centers will customize therapies for each individual patient based on the circumstances surrounding their addiction, and on whether they suffer any co-occurring disorders.
Use our rehab center directory to explore addiction treatment centers by city and state. All rehab centers featured on Addictions.com accept health insurance plans from most major providers and offer a variety of payment options to accommodate those with other payment preferences. If you have questions about rehab centers and their treatments, use our live chat option to speak with an addiction specialist in private, and get the answers you need to become healthier and drug-free.
If you or a loved one is self-medicating and needs help fighting addiction, call our 24/7 confidential helpline at 800-654-0987. Our experienced addiction counselors will discuss all your treatment options, offer free insurance verification, and help you find the best rehab center ready to help you achieve lifelong sobriety.