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How to Stop Self-Medicating

Many people who struggle with addiction developed an addiction to their drug of choice during a difficult period in their lives. One explanation for the connection in this timing is self-medication. Self-medication can be a slippery slope because the tendency to reach for an addictive substance can very easily turn into a substance use disorder (SUD).

Defining Self-Medication

Self-medication is reliance on a coping mechanism without seeking professional help. The forms of self-medication an individual may abuse can include:

  • Substance abuse
  • Food
  • Alcohol
  • Psychostimulants
  • Caffeine
  • Cannabis
  • Opioids

Self-Medication Hypothesis

The concept of self-medication surfaced in 1985 with the idea “that substance abuse can be a form of self-medication” and that “people use substances as a response to mental illness.” The self-medication hypothesis states “that alcohol and drug abuse is often a coping mechanism for people with a variety of mental health conditions, including depression.” Because of the stigma associated with mental illness, many people in the past have turned to self-medication. While society is moving forward with combating the stigma against mental illness and people have become more receptive to care and sharing their difficulties, it used to be something that was shoved away or hidden. To avoid dealing with the signs and symptoms of mental illness, individuals started to rely on maladaptive coping mechanisms like abusing drugs and alcohol to distance themselves from their reality and life circumstances.

While the drugs might be different, the substances used to self-medicate have one thing in common – they allow people to disconnect from their feelings. Individuals have different preferences for what substance they choose to self-medicate with, but most have a tendency to “gravitate toward the substance that alleviates their symptoms most effectively.”

Self-Medicating to Deal with Depression

Depression is a serious mood disorder that needs adequate and appropriate treatment to heal properly. Unfortunately, those who need help the most often do not seek professional help and attempt to cope on their own. Depression, along with anxiety, can severely impact daily function. Feelings of loss, helplessness, and anger drive people to engage in behavior like drug use to escape their feelings. Long-term, they run the risk of making their symptoms worse with withdrawal from the drugs and put themselves at risk of developing a SUD. Replacing ethical and academically approved care with illicit and addictive substances only delays and lengthens the process of getting professional help for the root of the problem. Self-medicating with your drug of choice is not only dangerous, but it will eventually lead to bigger problems than before. At Boardwalk Recovery Center, we understand that our clients need specialized support when it comes to mood disorders. We customize our approach to treatment with an individualized balance of counseling, medication, and psychoeducation.

One of the biggest issues with self-medicating is that some substances can lead to or exacerbate symptoms of mental illness. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America released research outlining how alcohol and other substances have the potential to increase anxiety symptoms. Symptoms of mental illness typically worsen after the effects of the substance wear off, as withdrawal sets in, leaving the user feeling depressed and even worse than before. It’s clear to see that self-medication “…can have a negative impact on mental health and does very little to treat the underlying condition.”

Tips to Stop Self Medicating

Self-medicating detaches people from reality. The only way to heal and move forward is to turn inward and find coping mechanisms that force you to reconnect with your authentic self and confront the root of the troubled feelings. Self-medicating allows the user to numb their feelings as a default rather than addressing their issues in a mindful way. The key to stopping self-medication and making real progress toward a stable recovery is to stop looking for outlets that distance you from yourself and instead engage in healthy coping mechanisms that bring you closer to yourself and your deepest emotions. This route is usually avoided, as the pain of addressing how you actually feel can be uncomfortable, but it is the only way to move forward and heal completely.

The best way to stop self-medicating is to replace these default behaviors with positive alternatives that connect you to your authentic self. Finding ways to tune inward and slow down the activity of the illness is a great place to start. Mindfulness and meditation are positive ways to slow down and distance yourself from your immediate reaction, giving you time to respond rather than react. The important distinction here is that mindfulness and meditation allow you to distance yourself from your immediate reaction, but not from your emotions, ensuring that you can acknowledge the feeling, but can respond in the right state of mind.

Practicing gratitude allows you to appreciate the things that are going right and prevents the brain from processing things from a negative perspective. Having a grounding mantra or empowering affirmation to come back to in times of difficulty can also help you remain present.

At Boardwalk Recovery Center, we guide our clients through powerful breathwork exercises and they also have the opportunity to participate in yoga classes. With a breathwork guide and yoga instructor, our clients can develop positive skills and an understanding of how to implement these practices when they need them the most. Inviting gentle exercise into your daily routine is a wonderful way to connect with your authentic self and helps you to naturally produce endorphins – those feel-good chemicals in the body.

The simplest way to be mindful is to link your thoughts to your breath and focus on the present moment. Your breath regulates your body function and can calm your nervous system. To stop self-medicating, you must first learn to tune inward rather than outward.

If you need help getting out of the destructive cycle of self-medication, please reach out to Boardwalk Recovery Center for help. We have resources to fill your toolkit and keep you from self-medicating and engaging in destructive coping mechanisms.

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