Self-medicating to deal with stress is a common response to a common problem. Self-medication can feel like an effective short-term solution, yet it never solves the underlying problem, nor is it an effective long-term remedy. Effective stress management and treatments for excessive stress, such as talk therapy, are important to combat the health consequences of stress.
When we think about self-medicating to deal with stress, we usually think of the misuse of prescription drugs or alcohol to help numb uncomfortable feelings of anxiety or depression while dealing with stressful circumstances.
But self-medicating to deal with stress can take on many different forms and can range from seemingly harmless to irrevocably life-altering, in a negative way.
All forms of self-medication can be traced to a cycle of looking for simple solutions to a complex problem. Stress is not bad, but we each have a personal limit to our tolerance of stress and exceeding that limit can have serious mental and physical consequences.
When you find yourself self-medicating to deal with stress, you’re on a path toward developing dependency, which can in turn develop into addiction. Once addiction takes hold, you may have a substance use disorder and require professional assistance from a women’s addiction rehab program designed to help you break the cycle and move toward recovery and wellness.
Why Do We Self-Medicate?
Women are twice as likely to self-medicate. There is a stigma around drug use that ignores the fact that most people indulge in some form of self-medication in times of serious stress. For example, the lockdown era of COVID saw an increase in the use of alcohol and cannabis at home, as well as binge eating.
Self-medicating to deal with stress temporarily can be easier and faster than trying to manage or find ways to minimize sources of stress. Poverty, for example, is a powerful factor for self-medication, as it is often an inescapable stressor that affects every aspect of a person’s mental, physical, and social life.
In other cases, there is a cultural aspect that cannot be ignored. Certain work cultures normalize drinking after work or celebrating a victory with alcohol. It’s also normal to cope with a hard day through alcohol.
Personal tolerances for stress differ. Some people are capable of taking on more before they feel the need to rely on an external reward to keep them going. This isn’t always a bad thing. What differentiates reward systems or stress management tools from one another are the effects they have on the user.
Binge eating or alcohol is a destructive or maladaptive coping mechanism. In this case, the immediate effect is positive (feeling better due to the inherent effects of alcohol consumption or a calorie-dense meal) but the long-term effects are deleterious (physical and mental health problems).
Positive coping mechanisms are either beneficial or constructive, by contributing to a solution to someone’s problems, or by improving their health. Engaging in mindfulness activities, going for a walk with a pet after work, or exercising as a means to blow off steam and reduce stress are all positive coping mechanisms.
Learning to identify our negative coping mechanisms – including different forms of self-medication – is the first step toward finding better ways to manage and overcome stress, or even help reduce it.
What Does Self-Medicating Look Like?
Self-medicating behaviors don’t address the problem while creating an additional source of stress or resulting in negative consequences.
Narrow definitions of self-medicating behavior usually include drugs and alcohol, but you can expand that list to include binge eating, as well as other maladaptive coping behaviors such as practicing unsafe sex, aggressive risk-taking, provoking violence, or self-harm without suicidal intent.
In these examples, the medication is a “therapeutic intervention” that offers short-term relief (through adrenaline, dopamine, or other immediate emotional responses) with long-term negative consequences. Some of these consequences include:
- Substance use disorders – self-medicating to deal with stress with addictive substances can result in an addiction. All substance use disorders are serious, and require long-term treatment.
- Increased risk of injury – self-medicating to deal with stress can inhibit your judgment, or result in increased risk-taking, which can result in injury and self-harm.
- Physical health conditions – whether through alcohol or even caffeine, excessive daily use can wear down your organs and result in heart and liver failure over time.
- Sleep disturbances – many drugs and other forms of self-medication negatively impact your sleep cycle. Sleep is essential – missing even just an hour a day can greatly affect your memory and reasoning skills, as well as your reflexes and physical abilities.
- Social isolation – negative coping mechanisms can harm relationships and push people away, further deepening underlying sources of stress, such as anxiety and depressive thoughts.
- Legal and financial strain – not all forms of self-medication are legal. This can result in problems with the law. Daily or near-daily use of certain substances can also be very expensive. This can eat into your budget and savings.
Dangers of Self-Medicating to Deal with Stress
Self-medicating to deal with stress is a growing concern, especially because many people view it as a quick and simple solution. While it may offer immediate relief, the long-term consequences are alarming and often overshadow any temporary comfort.
Here’s why self-medicating to deal with stress is more hazardous than it may seem:
Physical Health Risks
- Addiction: One of the most glaring dangers is the potential for addiction. Substances like alcohol, prescription medication, or illicit drugs can be habit-forming.
- Organ Damage: Sustained use of substances can damage vital organs like the liver, heart, and kidneys.
- Weakened Immune System: Substance abuse can weaken your immune system, making you more susceptible to illnesses.
Mental Health Implications
- Increased Anxiety and Depression: Ironically, self-medicating to deal with stress can heighten anxiety and depressive symptoms over time.
- Cognitive Decline: Continuous use of substances can result in memory loss, decreased concentration, and other cognitive impairments.
- Mood Swings: The effects of substances often include mood swings, which can be detrimental in both personal and professional settings.
Social and Economic Consequences
- Relationship Strain: Dependence on substances often places a strain on relationships with friends and family.
- Job Loss: The inefficiency, absenteeism, and risks associated with substance abuse often lead to job loss.
- Legal Consequences: Illegal drugs, or even the illegal use of prescription medications, can result in imprisonment or fines.
Masking the Real Issues
- Avoiding Professional Help: When you’re self-medicating to deal with stress, you’re not seeking proper medical advice for a tailored treatment plan.
- Ignoring Root Causes: Self-medication only masks the symptoms of stress without addressing the underlying issues.
Interactions with Other Medications
- Unintended Reactions: Combining substances with other medications can result in harmful interactions.
- Reduced Efficacy: Some substances may interfere with the effectiveness of medications you are taking for other health issues.
Self-medicating to deal with stress might seem like an easy fix, but it’s a perilous road to travel. Not only does it expose you to various health risks, but it can also alienate you from your community and exacerbate the stress you’re trying to alleviate. Proper medical diagnosis and treatment are crucial for effective stress management.
When to Seek Professional Help
Therapy is not exclusively a last resort. You can seek therapy without a formal diagnosis, or simply because you are feeling lost, and aren’t sure what you need. If you do worry about your self-medicating behavior, whether with alcohol or a different method, then you may want to consider talking to a professional about a guided withdrawal rather than attempting to quit immediately on your own.
Some substances are a lot more difficult to give up than others, and certain common self-medicating substances, such as alcohol and benzos, can cause life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. Medical supervision can ensure that your health is prioritized as you cut out your usage.
If you or a loved one need professional help, we at the Ho Tai Way Recovery Center offer several intensive treatment programs for women struggling with a history of mental health problems and substance use issues.
We focus on delivering compassionate care and offering support for a long-term recovery past the initial treatment period. Give us a call to learn more.