Alcohol is often called “liquid courage.” It’s given this name because it emboldens people to do things they might not otherwise be comfortable doing. Put another way, alcohol can be used to address social anxiety. This is not to say that alcohol is the best medicine to treat the problem or that it is even a good solution, but simply that it is widely used to address mental struggles.
Ways People Self-Medicate
Using alcohol or drugs to manage one or more mental health situations is called self-medication. People self-medicate in several ways:
- Illegal drugs – For example, some people believe marijuana can help with ADHD or anxiety. But marijuana can actually worsen the very things people are trying to address by self-medicating, including:
- Impulse control
- Caffeine – While some caffeine can help with concentration, science indicates that it is less effective than medication intended to address ADHD. Too much caffeine can actually make your memory worse.
- Cigarettes – Although people typically smoke to calm themselves down, research has shown that smoking can backfire and make people more hyper, exacerbating anxiety and inability to focus. Smoking has also been found to thin the brain’s frontal cortex, which affects learning, memory, attention, and motivation.
- Misused prescription drugs – Some people use prescription drugs illicitly in order to address physical or emotional pain. Drugs that are not prescribed for you may not be the proper dosage, may interact with other medications, or could lead to addiction.
- Alcohol – Science Daily reports that researchers discovered some people with anxiety use alcohol to try to overcome their fear of social situations. This can then lead to a vicious cycle of ever-increasing social phobia.
Solving a Problem by Creating a Problem
While it may seem obvious that substance use is not the best coping skill, there are situations in which, to the person suffering, substances can seem like the best available option. Self-medication may offer momentary relief, making the long-term risks less concerning.
Perhaps the most concerning problem that arises from self-medication is co-occurring diagnoses. This is when a person has a mental illness and a substance use disorder. When people try to self-medicate their emotional/mental issues, they are more likely to develop an addiction. According to The National Institute on Drug Abuse, this may also be attributed to the fact that mental illness and substance abuse have similar underlying risk factors, including:
- childhood trauma
- social environment
It may be difficult to understand why people would choose to self-medicate when it is possible to get perfectly good medications prescribed by a doctor to help treat their symptoms. An article in the Huffington Post attempted to tease out the reasons why people might choose to self-medicate:
- Having some drinks or smoking a joint with some friends is socially acceptable and initially does the trick.
- They feel like they can’t talk about the underlying problem.
- They lack other coping skills.
- Shame over their choice to self-medicate keeps them from seeking out help from medical professionals or even their own social circle.
- They are unwilling to admit that they have now become dependent on something.
Another reason why some people start to self-medicate, unrelated to mental or emotional pain, is physical pain. Chronic pain is one of the leading causes of addiction, according to Science Daily. Alcohol, opioids and prescription drugs are most commonly used for this purpose. Citing a study by Boston University School of Medicine and Boston Medical Center, Science Daily quoted the following statistics:
- 87 percent of those who screened positive for illegal drugs, misused prescription medications, or heavy alcohol usage had chronic pain.
- Half of these patients said their pain was severe.
- 51 percent of the patients using illegal drugs indicated that they did so to address their physical pain.
- 81 percent of patients using prescription drugs without a prescription or using more than prescribed indicated that they did so to manage chronic pain.
- 79 percent of the heavy drinking patients expressed that they did so because of physical pain.
Safe Harbor Can Help
If you or someone you know is self-medicating a medical or mental health condition, Safe Harbor Recovery Center can help to form a plan that will address the underlying needs causing the self-medication, while also helping to build a personalized path to recovery.