There has been much discussion in the treatment community about whether depression and anxiety disorders contribute to addiction or if addiction can be a cause of depression and anxiety. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), mental health conditions are common among those with substance use disorders and vice versa.
In some cases, the same risk factor, such as stress, can lead to both mental health disorders and addictions. In other cases, brain changes from drug and alcohol misuse may lead to the development of a mental health condition. Finally, some people may use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate a mental health disorder.
What Does Self-medicate Mean?
Self-medicating means a person uses some substance or other unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as gambling or alcohol, to manage the symptoms of a mental health condition. When people self-medicate, they use substances instead of seeking formal treatment. Self-medication can take on several forms.
Forms of Self-medication
People may self-medicate with alcohol, tobacco, prescription pills or recreational drugs. A recent study found that the following substances were common forms of self-medication among people with mood and anxiety disorders:
- Alcohol: Up to 14.9% of people with anxiety disorders use alcohol to self-medicate. Self-medicating with alcohol is especially common in people with social phobias. Among people with depression, 15.4% self-medicate with alcohol. Rates of self-medication with alcohol are highest among those with bipolar disorder.
- Cannabis: Cannabis, commonly called marijuana, may be used to self-medicate conditions like panic disorder.
- Opioids: Opioid drugs like heroin or prescription pain pills have been associated with anxiety disorders.
People may also use drugs like cocaine, amphetamines or hallucinogenic drugs to cope with symptoms of anxiety or depression.
Why Do People Self-medicate With Alcohol?
People may use alcohol to self-medicate because it can temporarily mask some uncomfortable symptoms of mental health conditions. For instance, alcohol creates feelings of euphoria, which results in temporary feelings of happiness. If someone is living with depression, alcohol may help them feel happier.
Self-medicating anxiety with alcohol is also common because alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, which slows down brain activity and can make you feel relaxed. The problem with self-medicating depression with alcohol, or using alcohol to treat anxiety symptoms, is that alcohol only provides temporary relief. With ongoing alcohol misuse, you may become addicted to alcohol, which typically worsens your mental health.
Signs You’re Using Alcohol to Self-medicate
If you usually drink in response to stress or negative emotions or specifically to become intoxicated to “numb your emotions,” these can be signs of self-medication.
You may also be self-medicating if you’re finding yourself engaging in any of the following behaviors:
- Drinking instead of participating in your usual activities or hobbies
- Spending less time with friends and family because you’re drinking
- Experiencing negative consequences, like worse grades, poor job performance or relationship problems because of alcohol use
- Developing a tolerance for alcohol, so you need higher quantities to get the same desired effects
Risks of Self-medicating With Alcohol
Occasionally drinking or consuming alcohol in moderation is generally safe, but self-medication comes with some risks. For example, if you drink heavily or regularly binge drink, your risk of developing an alcohol use disorder, the clinical term for alcohol addiction, increases.
Alcohol misuse also comes with the following health risks over the long term:
- Liver disease
- Unintended injuries
- Increased cancer risk
- Risky sexual activity and unintended pregnancies
- Heart disease
Why Self-medication Is a Bad Coping Strategy
Beyond the fact that self-medication can lead to addiction and several health consequences, it’s also a poor coping strategy. Covering mental health symptoms with alcohol or drugs may provide temporary relief, but over the long term, as you develop consequences from substance misuse, you’re likely to find that mental health symptoms worsen. Self-medicating doesn’t work and can create serious problems in your life, including legal troubles.
How To Stop Self-medicating With Alcohol
If you’re self-medicating anxiety, depression or another mental health condition with alcohol, you can take steps to overcome self-medication and productively treat your mental health symptoms. Developing healthy coping skills and, in some cases, seeking treatment can be beneficial.
Sometimes, self-medication can occur because of a specific pattern or habit. Try to engage in self-reflection regarding your own routines. Do you tend to drink when you’re lonely? Or perhaps when an important deadline is looming? Once you identify patterns, you can create a plan to react to your triggers without turning to alcohol.
Find Healthier Ways To Cope
Alcohol consumption can be replaced with healthy coping mechanisms, such as reaching out to a friend for support, establishing a regular exercise routine or simply allowing yourself to take a break when you feel overwhelmed. Decide upon some healthy coping mechanisms that work for you, and turn to these when you feel anxious or struggle with depression.
Find Co-occurring Treatment
If you’ve tried several strategies for overcoming self-medication with alcohol, it may be time to reach out for help. Symptoms like the inability to control your drinking, continuing to drink even in the face of serious consequences and giving up other activities because of drinking can point to an alcohol use disorder.
If you’re living with a mental health condition and an alcohol addiction, it’s important to seek treatment at a center that provides services for co-occurring disorders. Co-occurring disorders treatment addresses both mental health conditions and addictions simultaneously. Seeking treatment for your mental health condition can reduce the symptoms of addiction and vice versa.
The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake offers addiction treatment resources in Colorado for disorders that co-occur with addiction, including depression and anxiety. Different therapies and medical interventions can break the cycle of self-medicating anxiety and depression with substances. Contact us today for more information or to begin the admissions process.
National Institute of Mental Health. “Substance Use and Co-Occurring Mental Disorders.”“>Substanc[…]Disorders.” March 2021. Accessed September 12, 2022.
Turner, Sarah; Mota, Natalie; Bolton, James; Sareen, Jitender. “Self-medication with alcohol or drugs for mood and anxiety disorders: A narrative review of the epidemiological literature.“>Self-med[…]l literature.” Depression & Anxiety, September 2018. Accessed September 12, 2022.
Northwestern Medicine. “How Alcohol Impacts the Brain“>How Alco[…]cts the Brain.” March 2021. Accessed September 12, 2022.
Jones, A.W. “Physiology, Pharmacology, and Toxicology of Alcohol“>“Physi[…]gy of Alcohol.” Indiana University, December 2017. Accessed September 12, 2022.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder.“>Understa[…]Use Disorder.” April 2021. Accessed September 12, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Alcohol & Substance Misuse.“>Alcohol […]tance Misuse.” February 1, 2018. Accessed September 12, 2022.
The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.