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Signs of Self-Medicating with Drugs or Alcohol

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The term self-medicating refers to attempts to deal with depression, pain (physical or emotional), or intense emotions with the help of drugs (prescription or otherwise), alcohol, and other substances, and without the guidance of a doctor. You don’t have to be diagnosed with a medical condition to self-medicate. You might be self-medicating just as a response to the pressures of everyday life.

At Houston Behavioral Helathcare Hospital, we’ve gathered some information on causes and symptoms of self-medication, including self medicating depression, self medicating anxiety, self medicating ADHD, and self medicating with alcohol, and how to get help.

Some Risk Factors for Self Medication

Risk Factors for self-medication include:

  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Other mental illnesses
  • Childhood trauma
  • Intense emotional experiences
  • Physical and emotional abuse

One thing these risk factors have in common is stress; many are stressful experiences or memories of stressful times, and many can be stressors or can be the things that set off the desire to self-medicate, to find relief.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) issued a bulletin on the relationship between stress and substance abuse. Stress is part of our lives and can help us focus, but prolonged or intense stress can be debilitating, disrupting our ability to function from day to day. Traumatic stress and its aftermath (post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD) can put people at risk for substance abuse.

Children can also suffer from stress and even PTSD. Indeed, early-life stressors, such as child abuse or loss of a parent, can increase the risk of problems in adulthood, including impulsive behavior, anxiety and depression, and substance abuse.

Stress is also a major factor in people taking up smoking again, even years after quitting, and the same is true for resuming drug use after a period of abstinence.

Signs of Self Medicating

ProjectKnow lists the following signs of self-medicating:

  • Staying away from family, friends, social events, and other activities
  • A sudden change in hobbies or who one spends time with
  • Secrecy about how one spends time
  • Neglecting physical care, such as showering or eating
  • Having difficulties in work, school, or other areas
  • Sudden anger
  • New or unusual financial problems because of the cost of alcohol and drugs

Self Medicating Depression

Symptoms of depression include:

  • A continual sense of sadness, emptiness, hopelessness, guilt, or worthlessness
  • Irritability
  • Having trouble concentrating or paying attention
  • Difficulty sleeping, such as early waking, sleeping longer than normal, or insomnia
  • Weight changes or increased/decreased appetite
  • An increase in aches and pains
  • Thoughts of suicide, or attempts

These symptoms can be intense, and drugs or alcohol can dull the intensity, but they can also deepen the depression.

Self Medicating Anxiety

Anxiety and depression share many of the same symptoms, and the dangers of self-medication are similar. Depression and anxiety are often correlated with stimulation of the amygdala, a region of the brain associated with processing emotions.

Self-medicating with alcohol and drugs can help calm the stimulation (see The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs and Health, chapter 2, p. 14), but the calming is temporary, and the drugs used have their own side effects. Healthline has compiled a list of different substances people use to self-medicate, the effect each has, and the dangers of each substance.

Self Medicating ADHD

One effect of ADHD involves difficulty concentrating or focusing; another involves poor impulse control. WebMD lists the following warning signs that someone might be self-medicating for ADHD:

  • Alcohol: More than 7 drinks a week for a woman, 14 for a man, is excessive.
  • Marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and other illegal drugs: These have no benefit in treating ADHD. Any use at all is a matter for concern.
  • Caffeine: Like the most widely-used ADHD medications, caffeine is a stimulant, but it can affect growth and sleep of teens. In adults, drinking more than two cups of coffee a day, or not being able to cut back, may be a sign of self-medicating.
  • Cigarettes: Nicotine can help one focus, but it can also make symptoms of ADHD worse, more hyper. ADHD can also make quitting cigarettes harder, though the ADHD drug methylphenidate coupled with a nicotine patch can help greatly.
  • Over-exercise: Exercise sends extra blood to the brain, and the part controlling attention, so it’s a popular response to ADHD. The danger of over-exercise comes in taking time away from other normal life activities and family and friends to exercise more.
  • Prescription drugs: People may use prescription drugs for other than their intended use, or use a higher dose than prescribed, which can make ADHD worse, not better.

Besides Ritalin and Adderall, therapies for ADHD include cognitive behavioral therapy, yoga, counseling, and support groups.

Self Medicating with Alcohol

The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs and Health cites studies that suggest that one incentive to use drugs and alcohol may be “to suppress overactive brain stress systems that produce negative emotions or feelings” (p. 14). In other words, alcohol may calm the brain’s response to stress. However, the relief is only temporary, and withdrawing from alcohol can also produce negative feelings which can get stronger each time a person tries to quit alcohol. Self-medicating with alcohol is dangerous and will only make things worse.

If you or a loved one are struggling with alcohol and drug use, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, PTSD or other disorders, we invite you to learn more about Houston Behavioral. Take a look at our programs for adolescents and adults, and contact us today.