The Relationship Between Self-Medication and Addiction

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What is self-medication? On the surface, self-medication seems harmless. We may think of self-medication as having a glass of wine or a brownie after a difficult day, or using over the counter medications and other products to practice self-care. Self-medication can take on many forms. Some of them can be responsible forms, while others can lead to long-term, negative consequences.

Self-Medication and Substance Use

Self-medication takes on a different meaning in the world of substance use disorders. The self-medication hypothesis or model means that there’s an underlying cause that leads someone to use drugs. In this context, substances are a way to cope with emotions, stressors, and mental health disorders. Importantly, individuals with mental health disorders are not the only people who self-medicate. Again, there are many different forms of self-medication.

Taking substances may provide a reprieve or an escape from symptoms associated with mental illness. Relief is temporary, but substance abuse is ongoing and cyclical in nature.

Self-medication as it relates to substance use disorders means that people use substances as coping mechanisms. They choose to use them as a way to “treat” the underlying condition.
Here are some examples in which substances may be used to self-medicate.

Stress and Trauma

When trouble is imminent, the first instinct is to head for cover, what we often refer to as “fight or flight.” Individuals who rely on a substance to cope with stress are seeking protection from what they feel is imminent.

This is often why we hear about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and addiction occurring together. Trauma is complicated and complex, and substances can allow someone who has experienced trauma to shift their attention elsewhere. Substances allow individuals to escape reality, thus often leading to repeated use.

Anxiety and Depression

Research suggests that substance use and depression or anxiety commonly occur together. One study found that almost 25 percent of individuals with depression used drugs to relieve or manage symptoms. Some substances may provide temporary relief from anxiety and depression, particularly central nervous system depressants like alcohol. For example, alcohol may be used to relieve symptoms of social anxiety. Stimulants can also lead to increased energy or pleasure.

Chronic Pain

Self-medication isn’t always in response to mental health disorders. In addition to emotional pain, substance use can relieve physical pain.

Chronic pain, however, does often occur in individuals with mental health disorders, such as depression or bipolar disorder. Because the two are often connected, it’s worth recognizing that substance use disorders can develop as a result of chronic pain. Opioids or marijuana may be used to provide relief from pain and enhance relaxation.

Self-Medication and Treatment

Understanding the theory of self-medication is important, as it may provide more effective treatment options for substance use disorders. A substance use disorder is often only a symptom of a larger problem or another condition. Therefore, only treating the substance use disorder can lead to relapse. Dual diagnosis treatment recognizes that there are many factors that lead people to abuse substances.

Treatment with a mental health professional, whether inpatient or outpatient, can help individuals identify and address underlying causes of substance use disorders, as well as how to address symptoms of addiction and mental health disorder(s).

Whether it’s to seek relief from discomfort, escape from reality, or enhance mood, there are many reasons that people self-medicate. Because of the positive effects of self-medicating, it’s common for addiction to develop, especially if the underlying causes are never resolved.

If you’re concerned about self-medication, dual diagnosis may be a viable treatment option for you, as it gets to the root cause of addiction and underlying mental health conditions.

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