6 Signs You Are Self-Medicating Depression with Drugs or Alcohol
The term “self-medicating” means using drugs or alcohol to try to cope with painful or bothersome symptoms. In this blog, I am mainly talking about coping with depression, but it can also be to coping with anxiety, ADHD symptoms, trauma, abuse, schizophrenia, grief, or pretty much any uncomfortable or painful situation.
Self-medicating does NOT include the use of medications that you and your doctor have agreed to try to treat your depression with.
Does Alcohol or Drugs Help Depression?
Many people self-medicate because they believe using the substance helps them to cope or to feel better. And this might be true in the short term, or when using lose doses, which is why it can be difficult for people to believe that ultimately, they are not helping themselves, and are in fact hurting themselves!
In low doses, alcohol can improve your mood and relaxation. It can give you decreased inhibitions which might lead to increased confidence in the form of liquid courage. However, the more you use alcohol, the more you need in order to get these “positive” effects until you get to the point where you don’t get them at all and spend your time chasing the high. This is true of other drugs as well. At this point, alcohol is most likely starting to cause physical problems in your body as well.
Self-Medicating When You Are Taking Medications for Depression
Another danger of self-medicating is that the substances that you use can interfere with any medications that you are taking for your depression or any other problems. In some instances, this will take the form of causing your prescribed medications to not work as effectively as they otherwise could, but it can get much more dangerous than this. In some cases,
drugs and alcohol will interact with your prescribed medications in dangerous ways and may cause illnesses such as nausea, vomiting, difficulty breathing, heart attacks, low or high blood pressure, or memory problems. In some instances, it can even cause death.
When Are People Most Likely to Self-Medicate?
There are several factors that might increase the chances that you turn to alcohol or another substance to self-medicate. These are some of the most common:
Trauma or PTSD/CPTSD
Studies Of Using Alcohol to Self-Medicate
Studies have shown an interesting, bidirectional relationship between alcohol use and depression. What this means is that each increases the risk of the other. So, using alcohol
(or drugs) can worsen your depression, and depression puts you at risk of developing a problem with your alcohol (or drug) use. In fact, self-medicating has been shown to be associated with increased psychiatric diagnoses, higher stress levels, and a lower quality of life.
Physical Symptoms of Drinking Too Much
As stated above, drinking too much can cause physical problems and symptoms that might exasperate your depression. Below I’ve listed some of the physical symptoms of over-drinking for your information. If you notice that you are starting to have these symptoms, you might want to talk with your doctor about your drinking habits to see if you might benefit from getting some help:
Skin changes such as dry skin, chapped lips, or puffy eyes
Loss of appetite
A tingling sensation or numbness
Stomach issues such as nausea, vomiting, feeling bloated, or pain in upper part of stomach just under your ribs
You notice that you are getting sick more often
Yellowing of your skin or eye
Signs You Might be Self-Medicating
Below I’ve listed some of the warning signs that you are self-medicating. This list doesn't cover everything but is a good place to start looking.
You find that you are avoiding family and friends and are isolating yourself
You notice changes in the way you spend your free time and that your interests have changed. Maybe you aren’t interested in the same hobbies any longer
You are hiding from those closest to you how you are spending your time and how much or when you are using
You are noticing that you are having trouble meeting your daily responsibilities with school, work, and/or family
Increasingly you are becoming angry or irritable with little to no reason
You are having more financial problems due to the amount of money you are spending on substances
Self-Medicating and Suicide
At its essence, self-medicating helps you to avoid your problems and to not deal with your issues and your painful feelings. Although it can help helpful to avoid pain in short doses, as an overall strategy, it will only cause your problems to become worse, not better. On its own, depression can cause feelings of hopelessness, and we know that these types of feelings are what lead people to consider suicide. Drug and alcohol use can both cause feelings of hopelessness and can also increase these feelings in people who are already feeling this way. Over 50% of people who successfully commit suicide do so under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol. Because of this, self-medicating can be especially harmful for people with depression.
If you are wondering if you might have a problem with your drinking, there is a very simple test you can take online called the MAST (Michigan Alcohol Screening Test). Follow the link to take the test. This is a very simple screening that you can take on your own and bring the results to your doctor or therapist to discuss.
How to Help Yourself When Self-Medicating
The most important thing to remember is to not blame or shame yourself. You were doing what you thought best at the time to help yourself. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that! You simply picked a bad method to try. Now that you know what problems come with self-medicating, you can choose a different, healthier way to help yourself. Try some of these self-help methods:
Take a walk
Yoga or meditation
Guided imagery or relaxation. You will find a ton of apps for this, or look on YouTube
Journal about your feelings, thoughts, and dreams
Talk to a family or friend. Your support system is invaluable at those times you’re feeling down!
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
If the above self-help methods aren’t working, or if you are suicidal or think you might have a serious drug or alcohol problem, speaking with a professional can be the best thing to do. Call 988 for an emergency or go to the nearest hospital emergency room. Otherwise, consider talking with your doctor or other trusted professional. Substance use treatment can be found by calling SAMHSA at 1-800-662-4357. And lastly, I can be reached by following the link and specialize in depression treatment.