What Does It Mean to Self-Medicate, and How Can It Lead to Addiction?

There’s a common phrase that just about everyone has heard about addiction or mental health issues. It goes, “admitting you have a problem is the first step.” And this phrase is absolutely true. Many people don’t realize they have a problem and, as a result, don’t seek help. Instead, they might turn to self-medication as a coping mechanism, which can lead to additional issues, such as addiction.

What is Self-Medication?
Self-medication is when a person starts to rely on drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with other issues. People may turn to substances to navigate the negative symptoms of mental health or disorder or health condition. An example of self-medication is an individual being depressed, so they start drinking heavily to escape their feelings. Or, a person receiving a life-threatening diagnosis, so they begin to experiment with drugs to feel alive and reckless.

Why Do People Self-Medicate?
The self-medication theory began circulating within the field of psychology in the 1980s. It was observed that people using heroin and cocaine didn’t seem to turn to drugs for the “euphoria” effects. Instead, people were using substances to escape their reality – to relieve their state of dysphoria. This theory was widely adopted within psychology and was found to be applicable for other substances, including alcohol. Altering one’s current state with substances allows people to escape the emotional turmoils of their life that they cannot handle.

Self-Medication and Addiction
Self-medication can lead to addiction, especially since the individual isn’t dealing with the root problem at hand. If a person is turning to drugs and alcohol to cope with a mental health issue, such as depression, they aren’t treating or getting help for the depression. This can turn into a vicious cycle. Since the depression isn’t treated, the need for substances to self-medicate with remains. Over time, a tolerance can build up, which means a person needs more and more of drugs or alcohol to cope. And in just a short amount of time, the body and the mind can become reliant on the substance, and now the person has slipped into addiction.

Self-Medication and Co-Occurring Disorders
The self-medication theory also sheds light on the connection between addiction and mental health disorders. When an individual is dealing with a mental health disease and an addiction simultaneously, it’s known as co-occurring disorders. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 25% of people with serious mental illnesses also have a substance use disorder. Without addressing both issues, it’s difficult to get a handle on either one.

The Risks of Self-Medication
While it can be easy to fall into a routine of self-medication, it’s a dangerous practice that holds many risks. Some of the potential risks include:

  • Denial
  • Incorrect self-diagnosis
  • A delay in seeking professional medical treatment
  • A worsening of the root condition that spurred the self-medication
  • Risk of dependence and addiction

Getting Help For Self Medication
Often, the biggest obstacle to overcome with self-medication is denial. Many people who self-medicate don’t necessarily realize what they’re doing. If you’re noticing a pattern of self-medication in yourself or a loved one, consider seeking professional help. Allowing this behavior to go on for an extended amount of time can only increase the risk of serious addiction and other problems.
California Rehab Campus offers treatment programs that help individuals optimize their minds and bodies for success. This includes learning and developing healthy coping strategies, so self-medication doesn’t feel like the only option. Take the first step and get help today.

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