People use alcohol and drugs for a variety of reasons, to celebrate and to commiserate. Alcohol is a habitual part of many people’s lives. Drinking occasionally and in moderation can add to the enjoyment of an event; or take the edge off a difficult situation. Drugs have wide-ranging health benefits and when used correctly in the manner prescribed by a doctor are a miracle of modern medicine.
However, both substances are open to abuse, and for some individuals the use of them will be simply about wanting to change the way they feel. To make themselves feel better; to boost their confidence; to improve performance and focus; to be stronger or go faster; or to dull loneliness and boredom.
Unfortunately, the use of a substance, whatever it may be, is just a temporary fix which can leave the user struggling with additional complications – poor health, depleted finances, and damaged relationships – and in some cases a problem with dependency.
The regular use of substances to alleviate symptoms of mental health conditions and unaddressed emotional pain is sometimes described as self-medicating. The term refers to a patient trying to cure (or fix) an issue, without being under the care of a licensed medical professional.
This could be – for example in the case of a mental health condition such as depression, anxiety or bipolar – because they have never formally been diagnosed; or because for some reason they have chosen to try and treat themselves – maybe they don’t have access to medical care, they can’t afford it, or they don’t realise they have a problem that can be treated.
The self-medication hypothesis was first introduced in 1985. The hypothesis suggests that people use substances as a response to mental illness, or to deal with underlying emotional distress such as anger and loneliness. It states that alcohol and drug abuse is often a coping mechanism for people with a variety of mental health conditions, including depression and trauma.
Medical professionals agree that the unmonitored use of substances leads to an increase in the symptoms of almost every mental illness. It has a hugely negative impact on emotional health and does nothing to treat the underlying problem – often aggravating or increasing issues.
Repeated use of substances to manage emotions or deal with mental health symptoms can be labelled as self-medicating. To stop the use of a “fix” requires treatment for any underlying issues, which will vary from patient to patient.
Some common reasons for self-medicating include –
Some individuals self-medicate with alcohol and drugs to ward off the emotional imbalance created by mental health illnesses like PTSD and bipolar. Anxiety and depression are frequently occurring side effects of drug withdrawal, trapping the user in a vicious cycle.
Any traumatic event or series of events: death of a loved one, sexual or physical assault, war, divorce, losing a job or money worries, all cause the body and mind stress. It is estimated that over 25% of people affected by unresolved trauma or PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) will use a substance, such as alcohol, illicit or prescribed drugs, as a defence mechanism.
Physical, mental, or sexual abuse in childhood, or later as an adult can leave an individual prone to several psychological illnesses, including both depression and anxiety. Victims of domestic abuse are seven times more likely to suffer from PTSD, substance abuse disorder, and suicidal thoughts.
There are links between loneliness, emotional pain, and self-medicating. People with little social contact or a support network are at more risk of developing mental health problems, which then leads to them using alcohol and drugs to combat feelings of isolation and boredom. The issue is then often compounded as sufferers of depression, anxiety and substance abuse frequently cut themselves off from friends and family.
If you are concerned about yourself, or that someone you love may be self-medicating, here are some common signs to look out for.
• Withdrawal from family, friends and loved ones.
• Increasing disregard of other hobbies and pursuits.
• Neglect of responsibilities such as work or school.
• Decline in personal hygiene and care for health – poor sleeping and eating habits.
• Lies, secrecy and defensiveness about how time is being spent.
• Moodiness, irritability, restlessness – quick to anger.
• Using alcohol and drugs to escape from challenging situations or difficult feelings and emotions.
• Negative consequences because of using substances (finances, relationships, health).
• An increase in mental health problems such as anxiety or depression.
Individuals use alcohol to give themselves confidence and alleviate anxiety; to enjoy social occasions and make themselves more fun; to block out difficult feelings and numb emotional pain. Whilst this may work for some in the short-term – long-term relying on alcohol can cause physical health issues including liver, kidney and heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and dementia. Prolonged use can lead to alcoholism and alcohol use disorder; and is known to exacerbate rather than relieve mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.
Whether it is illegal street drugs, or the use of illicitly obtained prescription medication (i.e., using more than initially prescribed, someone else’s prescription, or to obtain feelings of euphoria), using drugs to manage uncomfortable emotions is common, but incredibly dangerous.
Most drugs have the capacity to be highly addictive, both physically and psychologically. Using drugs to alleviate symptoms of stress, trauma, and mental health conditions, or to mask unresolved pain and anger, just increases the chance of dependency and substance abuse problems and does not deal with any of the underlying issues.
It is not just psychoactive substances that individuals use to self-medicate with, some people will use food. Sometimes called emotional or comfort eating, often involving bingeing on highly calorific carbohydrates, sugary and salty foods, using food to ease difficult or troubling emotions.
Binge eating can have a negative effect on mental and physical health. Impacting self-esteem, adding to depression and anxiety symptoms, and causing weight gain – which can lead to obesity and all the physical complications associated with being overweight.
Some people will not use substances to “fix” their feelings but turn to compulsive and addictive behaviours instead. Gambling, shopping, sex, video games and excessive internet use can all be used to soothe negative emotions or hide from situations that are difficult to deal with.
If you recognise any of the above behaviours, signs, or symptoms then there is a very good chance that you, or someone you love is self-medicating and you should seek professional advice as soon as possible.
Here at our luxury rehabilitation centre, set on the beautiful Spanish island of Ibiza, we have a highly qualified team experienced in a range of therapies for the treatment of all substance and process addictions. We also treat a variety of mental health disorders, including PTSD, bipolar, anxiety, depression, and trauma.
Alongside the more traditional methods of individual and group counselling, we use transcranial magnetic stimulation and equine-facilitated psychotherapy.
For any information about the rehab centre, including details on admissions, please contact [email protected]
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