SOBERNATION What is Self-Medicating and Why Do We Do It

Addiction can be a whirlwind of destruction, highs, lows, and emotions run riot. Why do people become addicted? That’s the million-dollar question and it’s different for everyone. It can depend on genetics, environment, trauma, and even mental illness. It’s not uncommon to hear that some people affected by a substance use disorder have been self-medicating. What does self-medicating mean? Is it something everyone does? I believe it is a component to many people’s using. We are convinced in today’s world that we should not feel pain which leads us to numb ourselves. Let’s explore exactly what self-medication is and why we do it.

What is self-medicating?

Google defines self-medication as an act of choosing and taking medications by oneself instead of by prescription or under the recommendations of a doctor or other medical professional. Their second definition is, “taking addictive or habituating drugs to relieve stress or other conditions.” It doesn’t always have to be addictive drugs; self-medicating can also refer to taking over-the-counter medication to treat ailments such as a headache or fever.

But in the case of a substance use disorder, self-medicating is a coping mechanism and an unhealthy one at that. When we run into tough problems in our lives or we feel uncomfortable due to pain and emotions, our first instinct may be to try to run away from these feelings. What better way to do that than with drugs and alcohol? I believe many people who have an addiction are attempting to alter their reality in some way, for some reason.

You might have back pain and to deal with it you have three beers every night. You may have a loved one who just passed away and the emotional depth of your pain won’t subside so you take Percocet every day. You might have a big exam coming up which your job depends on so you take Adderall to help you concentrate. You just broke up with your significant other and that’s why you went to happy hour every day this week. These are all common examples of self-medicating. In our society where alcohol is promoted on television and online relentlessly, it’s no wonder a martini is the first thing we turn to when we feel pain.

Self-medicating is a learned human a behavior. If it’s not a healthy way to cope, why do we do it?

Why do we do it?

How do we learn to self-medicate? We might have seen others doing it around us. We live in a society where pain is not an emotion that wants to be dealt with. But I believe we also self-medicate because it works. It works for a time until it doesn’t anymore. The thing about self-medicating is that it doesn’t remove the pain from our lives. It almost never changes the situation or emotions that we are required to deal with. That’s why as a part of recovery, we are required to learn new coping mechanisms and the goal is to learn how to deal with life on life’s terms.

It’s unrealistic to think that nothing bad will ever happen to us in our lives and that we can live pain-free 100 percent of the time. What we can do is learn to live with the pain and work on our internal selves and how we process pain and how to manage it. If self-medication works, why should you stop doing it?

How can we stop self-medicating?

The reality is self-medicating can be harmful. This type of coping mechanism can lead to addiction and can exacerbate an already troublesome issue with dangerous substances like drugs and alcohol.

The dangers of self-medicating include:

Mixed medications. Using medications that may interact could cause an accidental overdose or death.

Inaccurate medical diagnosis. If you aren’t a medical professional, you could be misdiagnosing yourself and mistreating yourself with certain medications.

Covering symptoms. By self-medicating you could actually be covering up symptoms that are worse than they appear. It may mask a bigger problem.

Delaying real medical care. Just like with an inaccurate diagnosis, delaying real medical care can be risky. You may be missing something more severe, or could put off getting help until something is much worse.

Of course, any time you self-medicate with dangerous substances like alcohol and drugs, you are at a higher risk for developing an addiction.

Short-term solution. As I mentioned earlier, self-medication is only a short-term solution. It doesn’t ever get to the root of any issue. It can make you feel better for a time, but in the end, it doesn’t remove the pain from your life.

While you may believe self-medication is an effective strategy, it can do more damage than good. In order to leave behind these risks, we must stop self-medicating. If you know you’re using drugs and alcohol to deal with stress, emotions, or everyday life, recovery might be the best path for you. Self-medication won’t be able to last you your whole life through. Recovery on the other hand, can. There are many options on how to start your life in recovery: addiction treatment, 12 step groups, SMART recovery, recovery coaches, and more.

The beauty of recovery is getting in touch with your inner self, learning new ways to cope, and how to be a functioning member of society who doesn’t need to self-medicate in order to live. Recovery allows us to be in touch with our emotions, but not overwhelmed by them. It can teach us why we drank and used in the first place and how to move on from a life ruled by substances.

If self-medication has been your way of dealing with anything life throws at you and you are still unhappy, it’s likely you need a change. Recovery is the greatest change anyone can make and most important, it’s a lifelong solution. Leaving self-medication behind and trying sobriety could be the best decision you ever make and it may be the solution that you’ve been searching for all along.

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