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How to Stop Self Medicating with Alcohol and Drugs

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Drinking alcohol or using drugs is a quick escape from reality and can numb the symptoms of certain mental health issues. When individuals use substances with the intent of numbing these symptoms, it’s called self-medication. Self-medication quickly leads to addiction and learning how to stop self medicating with alcohol and drugs is critical for long-term sobriety and recovery.

At Catalina, we understand the connection between drug and alcohol abuse or addiction and mental health. According to drug and alcohol research, substance abuse may cause problems like depression, anxiety, and psychosis. However, some people have a mental health disorder that existed before substance abuse began.

In these instances, it’s important to treat both the addiction and the underlying mental health condition associated with self-medicating. Keep reading to learn more about what self-medication is, why people self-medicate, and how treatment for self-medication at Catalina Behavioral Health can set you up for long-term sobriety and success.

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What is Self-Medication?

Self-medication describes a coping mechanism of using alcohol, illegal drugs, or another coping mechanism to numb the symptoms of an underlying condition or make you feel good. While it is very common for individuals to self-medicate because of a mental health condition, others may self-medicate because of chronic physical pain.

Self-medication comes in many forms. Having a drink to relieve anxiety symptoms in social situations, smoking a joint to relax, eating while bored, having a cigarette when stressed, or taking non-prescription medication to fall asleep are all examples of self-medicating.

As you self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, it’s easy for those habits to turn into the cycles of alcoholism or addiction. You may develop drug and alcohol dependence that makes it hard to feel normal except when you are using.

Why Do People Self-Medicate?

Often, self-medication starts as a way to relax or ease the symptoms of depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD, and other mental health issues. Individuals who are self-medicating do not always know that they have an underlying condition and may treat the symptoms in this way because they know that it works.

Self-medicating with depressants like alcohol and cannabis to numb symptoms is most common. Alcohol is legal in most places and easily accessible and marijuana is also becoming more easily available because it is legal in some areas. Self-medicating by smoking or using nicotine is also common because of its availability.

Self Medication Can Happen with Prescribed Medicine as Well

Some individuals also self-medicate using other including prescription medications as well as recreational drugs. Prescriptions commonly used for self-medication include prescription painkillers, sleeping pills, and ADHD medications. Individuals who use stimulants like cocaine, meth, or prescription medications for ADHD often use to experience feelings of euphoria.

It’s also not uncommon for individuals with ADHD to self-medicate with stimulants like cocaine because they make the brain feel more “functional”, even though it can make ADHD worse when you self-medicate. Those who use cannabis, depressant prescription medications, alcohol, or heroin are more likely to use it to escape reality or relieve symptoms of mental illness.

Additionally, people may self-medicate to treat chronic pain. Individuals with long-term pain from an injury or chronic condition may need higher doses of pain medication over time as they build up a tolerance. When doctors cannot prescribe higher doses, they may seek pain relief elsewhere.

What Are the Risks of Self-Medication?

Self-medicating Depression

Self-medication begins as an attempt to manage mental health symptoms and ends as a vicious cycle. Regardless of whether you are self-medicating with drugs, alcohol, shopping, sex, food, or something else, any type of self-medicating has a chance of leading to addiction. In the case of people who drink alcohol or use drugs to cope, the effects on the central nervous system cause drug and alcohol dependence. This means that your brain becomes dependent on these substances just to feel normal.

Of course, the risks of self-medicating depression, mood and anxiety disorders, and other mental health conditions change depending on the method of self-medication. For people who self-medicate by gambling or shopping, there’s the greatest risk of financial issues. Those who self-medicate using food, by contrast, are likely to crave unhealthy foods that can cause weight gain and mood problems.

Furthermore, there are risks of health consequences when self-medicating. Using drugs or alcohol along with prescription medications can negate the effects or cause dangerous side effects. Furthermore, drug and alcohol users are at risk of health conditions from self-medicating including increased risk of disease, organ damage, heart disease, heart attack, stroke, and more.

What are the Dangers of Long-Term Substance Abuse?

When self-medicating long-term, whether it is alcohol, marijuana, nicotine, or illegal or prescription drugs, there is an increased risk of mental health problems. Substance use disorders make it hard to have a drink or two or smoke a joint and then stop. Instead, individuals chase feelings of relaxation, euphoria, or numbness that might come along with their drug of choice.

Furthermore, long-term drug or alcohol abuse affects your brain on a chemical level. This causes an imbalance of important neurotransmitters responsible for communication between the body and brain. When using stimulants like cocaine, these imbalances can throw off the pleasure and reward center in your brain, making it harder to experience feelings of happiness naturally.

The imbalance of chemicals caused by long-term alcohol or drug abuse can also make it harder to sleep, eat a balanced diet, and practice self-care, all things that contribute to declining mental health.

The effects self-medicating has on your system can also make the symptoms of depression, mood and anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, and other conditions worse, too. For example, using alcohol or opioids increases the risk of developing depression while methamphetamine and cannabis use are linked to a heightened risk of psychosis.

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Self-Medicating and Mental Health

Some people self-medicate mental health symptoms because they are unaware that they have an existing mental health condition. For example, individuals with repressed childhood trauma may not remember the events that have led to mental health problems. However, they will still experience symptoms of PTSD because their brain remembers trauma on a subconscious level.

In other cases, self-medication may happen because a person does not have access to affordable or convenient treatment for their mental health. It might seem easier to treat symptoms using recreational or prescription drugs, alcohol, or other substances than it is to keep and schedule appointments, attend therapy, and make a genuine effort to improve mental health.

The real risk of self-medicating symptoms by abusing drugs and alcohol is that it can make existing mental health issues worse. You might drink to help you relax before a social situation if you have generalized anxiety disorder but long-term alcohol consumption can make handling these anxiety symptoms without self-medicating harder.

How Substance Abuse Affects Bipolar Disorder, Depression, and Other Disorders


People often turn to drugs and alcohol to numb the symptoms of their underlying condition. While this might provide temporary relief from symptoms, long-term substance abuse makes mental health worse. This is because of the way that drugs or alcohol interact with the brain.

Some overstimulate the “pleasure and reward” center of the brain while others imitate natural neurotransmitters. Regardless of the specific interaction, using alcohol or drugs alters moods, emotions, and behaviors while disrupting the natural processes of the brain.

Mood disorders (also called affective disorders) are characterized by periods of intense happiness called mania and low periods of major depression. Bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, dysthymia, and pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder are all examples of mood disorders.

Depression and anxiety can occur on their own, however, substance use disorder also comes with an increased risk of these conditions. Alcohol use causes a cycle of anxiety and depression after consuming large amounts of alcohol but may result in anxiety symptoms or nervousness during withdrawal. With drugs like stimulants, using produces temporary feelings of euphoria. After using, though, the pleasure center of your brain is overwhelmed and the resulting lows cause depression.

Posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms are hard to live with. Left untreated, PTSD can cause anxiety or panic disorder, depression, psychosis, and difficulties in day-to-day life. When individuals use alcohol or drugs to gain relief from PTSD symptoms, it is only a temporary fix.

Schizophrenia is not something caused by drug or alcohol abuse, however, using alcohol or drugs can make symptoms severely worse. Psychoactive substances and even marijuana use have a risk of psychosis and this risk is even higher in individuals with schizophrenia.

Eating disorders are common in individuals with substance use disorders. When you are constantly focused on relieving the symptoms of an underlying mental health issue, your focus is not on food. Additionally, drug and alcohol misuse makes it harder for your body to understand cues like those for hunger and satiety. You may not even feel hungry, which can lead to less food intake, poor nutrition, and generally poor health.

Insomnia and other sleep disorders are also affected by drug and alcohol misuse. For example, even though alcohol use might make it easier to fall asleep initially, it poorly affects the quality of sleep. Drinkers often toss and turn at night and don’t get the deep, restorative REM sleep needed to wake up feeling refreshed.

While mood disorders, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and eating disorders are commonly found as co-occurring disorders diagnosed alongside substance use disorder, other mental illnesses may also be affected by substance use. The only way to find effective treatment is to work with a doctor in psychological medicine.

At Catalalina our psychiatric professionals will ask questions, collect medical and family history, and make a diagnosis before recommending treatment that will ease symptoms instead of making symptoms worse.

How Do I Know if I’m Self-Medicating?

Drink to Relieve Boredom

Many of us have sat down with the alcohol of our choice at the end of a long week (or day) to relax. When using drugs or alcohol becomes a regular occurrence, though, it may be time to seek treatment for substance dependence.

If you aren’t sure that you are self-medicating or that you are at the point where you need to seek treatment, consider some of the following questions:

  • Are you using drugs or alcohol frequently throughout the week?
  • Do you use drugs or drink to relieve boredom or cope with stress?
  • Are you regularly drinking or using drugs just to feel normal?
  • Have you ever used your substance of choice and had a hard time stopping?
  • Have you ever sought out other substances when your substance of choice wasn’t available?
  • Do you need to use more now to feel the same as you once did?
  • Do you worry about having access to drugs or alcohol? For example, do you worry when you run out of alcohol before payday or when your prescription gets low?
  • Do your mental health symptoms seem worse after the effects of the drugs or alcohol have worn off?
  • Has drinking or substance abuse led to employment, relationship, or financial problems?
  • Is substance use affecting your appetite, sleep patterns, or daily life?
  • Do you experience sweatiness, fatigue, sickness, or other withdrawal symptoms when you aren’t using?
  • Do you have symptoms like hopelessness, intense sadness, anger, overwhelming stress, or other negative emotions that are impacting your daily life?
  • Have family, friends, or work acquaintances mentioned being worried about your substance use?

If you answered “yes” to several of these questions, you may be self-medicating with alcohol or drugs. For individuals who are still unsure, contact our team at Catalina for a drug and alcohol assessment. There are assessments online, but you cannot guarantee the accuracy. These tests also do not always consider risk factors, pre-existing health conditions, or family history, either.

How to Stop Self Medicating with Alcohol and Drug Use

 Dual Diagnosis Treatment

Even though alcohol is legal (and even cannabis in some areas), it does not mean that there are no risks of self-medicating with these substances. People self-medicate to experience temporary relief from their problems, but this often leads to more problems in the future.

This is why it’s important to get help when you identify patterns of underlying physical or mental conditions, rather than just trying to manage the symptoms yourself. Here are some ways to treat co-occurring disorders.

Seeking Dual Diagnosis Treatment for Your Mental Health Disorder

When seeking treatment for self-medication, it’s important to find a program that will simultaneously address drug or alcohol use and any underlying mental illness. At Catalina, we offer dual-diagnosis therapy and treatment because we understand the importance of addressing mental health as part of drug or alcohol recovery.

Failing to treat an individual’s mental health issue makes recovery significantly harder, particularly when they complete treatment and are still dealing with the same symptoms that drove them to use drugs and alcohol in the first place. A comprehensive treatment program will include individual therapy, referral to peer support groups, learning healthier ways to cope, and developing skills to overcome addiction and promote long-term recovery.

Developing Healthy Coping Skills for Life’s Struggles

Even when you change your environment and make an effort to rid your life of stressors, it’s not realistic to expect life to be completely stress-free. Life is unpredictable. This is why it’s important to develop healthy coping skills as part of an effective recovery program. Having these skills in place gives you an alternative to self-medicating with alcohol or drugs when work, home, or relationships cause stress.

Additionally, as you practice skills, they become easier to use and can even be beneficial during times of crisis like the death of a loved one or going through a traumatic experience.

Learning Strategies for Relaxation

Self-medication is often used as a technique to cope with anxiety disorders, depression, and other conditions. Instead of self-medicating your mental health condition, focus on learning healthier ways to relax without drugs or alcohol. This might include practicing mindfulness, deep breathing, or engaging in relaxing activities like taking a hot bath, reading a book, or dancing to some loud music.

Finding hobbies that you enjoy is also important for recovery. These hobbies will fill the time that you once reserved for using your substance of choice.

Focusing on Self-Care

Self-care is often pushed aside when a person is struggling with drug abuse or alcohol use disorder. This includes things like eating a nutritious diet, getting enough sleep, drinking enough water, being physically active, and finding healthy hobbies to fill your time with.

Not only will self-care improve the quality of your life, but all these things promote improved mental health. Don’t worry if you don’t have the motivation to do all these things. Like drug and alcohol use, self-care is something that becomes easier as you make it a habit. Start small and stay consistent- eventually taking care of yourself will become easy.

Fostering Healthy Relationships and Peer Support

Fostering Healthy Relationships and Peer Support

Another element of success in recovery is having a solid support system in place. While addiction is often thought of as a journey you must go through alone, it is much easier with the right support. Attending peer support groups gives those struggling with substance use disorders an open place of discussion to talk about struggles, successes, and recovery techniques.

Additionally, learning to differentiate between healthy and toxic relationships is an important part of recovery. Many people have to find new social circles than they belonged to when drinking or using drugs. Additionally, many clients work toward repairing healthy relationships with family and other positive influences that may have been damaged during periods of self-medication.

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Find Support to Stop Self-Medicating at Catalina

At Catalina, we specialize in dual diagnosis treatment that is most effective at treating self-medication. Addressing both addiction and underlying mental health conditions gives our clients the best chance to overcome the use of drugs and alcohol for good. Furthermore, we are an accredited treatment facility that uses evidence-based treatment to recommend the best course of action for clients.

If you’re seeking treatment for self-medication, you don’t have to settle for a rehab program that fails to address the mental health symptoms that drove you to use substances in the first place. Give our caring team at Catalina Behavioral Health a call and learn more about our dual-diagnosis treatment program today!

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