4 Signs You’re Subbing Substance Abuse for Mental Health Treatment
Tough day at work? Head to the bar. Big fight with your boyfriend or girlfriend? Light up a joint. These may sound like “normal” reactions to a stressful or emotionally difficult situation, and perhaps they are “normal,” but they are not healthy. In some cases, when the behaviors are the natural response to any difficult situation, they may indicate an issue with self-medication. The act of self-medicating occurs when you turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to deal with tough issues. Unfortunately, this can lead to substance abuse and, in time, addiction and a host of new problems that are far more difficult to manage than the original difficulty that drove you to drink or get high. Do you self medicate? Here are four signs that you might be.
1. You drink or get high when you feel stressed, depressed, angry, or other uncomfortable emotions.
Though on a rare occasion many people may “drown their troubles” in a bottle of wine – or something harder – if it becomes a regular habit, it is a sign of self-medication. If every time you get mad at someone, feel depressed, attend a social event, or just feel bored, you turn to drugs or alcohol, you are using substances in an unhealthy way. Some people crave their drug of choice as soon as they enter a situation that is stressful. Others may begin to panic if they are unable to drink or get high when they feel social anxiety, depression, anger, and other uncomfortable emotions. If you find that you get irritable or restless when you are unable to drink, smoke, snort, or shoot away your difficult feelings, you are likely self medicating.
2. Your mood or mental health symptoms get worse the more you drink or get high.
Over time, substance abuse takes a toll on your physical and mental health. You may not sleep as well, your eating habits may change, and you may find that you more frequently struggle with illness. Additionally, you may find that the moods and emotions you were primarily trying to quell through substance abuse have become stronger, more frequent, or longer in duration since you began drinking or getting high to deal with them. Though initially you may have experienced some relief from these symptoms, over time, regular use of substances can worsen them.
3. You are experiencing more health, social, financial, and other problems.
Drug abuse brings with it a host of problems. Whether or not there are underlying difficulties in managing mental health symptoms or emotions, ongoing substance abuse creates too many issues to list. In general, people usually experience:
- Relationship problems
- Difficulties in maintaining commitments at school or work
- Low self-esteem and self-confidence
- Physical health issues
- Mental health symptoms related to drug and alcohol use
- Financial struggles
- Decreased ability to experience true joy and connection with others
4. You’ve been told by doctors, loved ones, and friends that you need treatment.
You may not take it seriously, but when the people who are closest to you tell you that they are concerned about the amount you are drinking or the drugs you are using, it’s worth your consideration. They know you better than anyone else, and they are more objective than you are and thus more capable of assessing the situation when you begin to shift from recreational use of substances to abuse or addiction. Similarly, when a doctor tells you that you are experiencing chronic health problems – or building toward chronic health problems – due to your use of alcohol or drugs, it’s time to listen.
What to Do if You Are Self-Medicating
- Stop. There is nothing to be gained from using drugs and alcohol to manage difficult emotions. Instead, the practice will likely only worsen the underlying issue and then cause additional problems in your life. Don’t justify or accept the practice of self-medication as normal for any reason.
- Learn new coping skills. Support groups for specific issues (e.g., social anxiety, anger, etc.) can assist you in learning how best to address your symptoms in a way that is healthy.
- Moderate use or seek help. If possible, moderate your intake of alcohol and cut out the use of harmful substances altogether. If it’s not possible, seek substance abuse treatment.
- Seek treatment for serious mental health symptoms (e.g., depression, anxiety, etc.) that may indicate a treatable mental health disorder. In some cases, comprehensive care that includes medication and therapy may be the best way to help you manage without self-medication.
If You Can’t Stop Drinking or Using Drugs…
Unfortunately, self-medicating for months or years may add up to drug or alcohol dependence, and in this case, stopping on your own may not be possible. Addiction is a medical disorder, and medical treatment is available. Detox can help you address physical symptoms of dependence, and intensive therapy can help you to address the psychological cravings for your drug of choice as well as the issues that initially drove you to self-medication and ultimately addiction. If you are living with a co-occurring mental health disorder in addition to addiction, this too should be treated. Dual diagnosis treatment will help you to learn how to live without drugs and alcohol while also managing the symptoms of the mental health disorder. Because the two issues are deeply entwined, it is not recommended that you attempt to get treatment for the mental health issue while continuing to drink or get high, or that you seek treatment for drug dependence without also getting treatment for the underlying mental health disorder.