What Is Self-Medication and How Does It Relate to Addiction?

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By: Renaissance Recovery

Medically Reviewed by: Diana Vo, LMFT

Last Updated: 7/1/2021

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Authored By: Joe Gilmore

Table of Contents

Self-medication is the use of drugs and alcohol to cope with mental health issues or chronic pain. This may mean the misuse of prescription drugs from a doctor or excessive alcohol consumption. When you don’t get the help you need, self-medicating can easily turn into an addiction.

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Self-Medication and Addiction

Whether it is in the offices of prescribing physicians or in a social setting where people are experimenting with addictive drugs, only 10% to 20% of users become addicted. Self-medication can bring a greater risk of addiction, but it begs the question, “Why is this so?” These people aren’t thrill-seekers looking for a high or a sense of euphoria, they were seeking relief of dysphoria. It is not surprising that individuals with any of these conditions could become attached to the powerful change in the emotional state that drugs can provide, especially persons who are prone to addiction.

The effects of some emotion-altering drugs include a greater reliance upon them and reduced effectiveness over time, resulting in the urge to consume more of them. This presents a unique problem and a greater risk of addiction. We know that dependency on addictive drugs may or may not be associated with co-occurring psychiatric or mental health disorders. On the other hand, with conditions like PTSD, borderline personality, and bipolar disorders —conditions in which anger and rage are common —the disproportionately high co-occurrence with opiate addiction is too great to be simply a coincidence.

Over the years, people began taking more of their prescribed medications such as sleeping pills and at greater intervals, By the 1960s, this was happening more often and the issues began to be recognized in the medical community. The self-medication hypothesis began appearing in medical journals soon after, starting in the 1970s, as doctors started seeing noticed that heroin addicts were using the drug to cope with problems such as stress and loneliness.

This leads to the idea that drug use for some people gives them a way to deal with stress in the absence of other solutions such as meaningful personal relationships. This theory started making sense when it became obvious that many medications prescribed for legitimate ailments are similar to recreational drugs. The theory made even more sense when the medical community observed that that marijuana, only previously thought of as a recreational drug, seemed to have medicinal properties. Going one further, some physicians and researchers postulated that for conditions where there was chronic pain, prescribed medications may be insufficient or problematic. As such, marijuana users who suffer from chronic pain were simply using marijuana as a form of self-medication. This has lead to medical marijuana now being available on prescription in some places for the treatment of certain conditions.

What Physicians Say About Self-Medication

The self-medication theory is increasingly popular among people with addictions and professionals or physicians who treat them. In the past, many took a hard line on addiction and tended to believe the self-medication theory was little more than an excuse for poor choices. Today, medical professions find it more beneficial to transition people from substances and behaviors that they are addicted to and replace them with prescription medications that address the underlying problem directly. Depression, for example, can often be successfully treated with antidepressant medication and depression treatment, freeing the individual from seeking emotional comfort in their addiction.​​

The theory is viewed favorably by people with addictions, particularly illicit drug users. It now presents them not as weak-willed, but as people seeking a solution to a problem in a situation where there was a gap left by limited medical options. The self-medication theory is also helpful to the therapeutic process, as it provides a clear path out of addiction that unites professionals with people struggling with addictions. They have a shared goal of correctly treating the underlying problem, and can work together to achieve this. However, some argue that the theory may absolve illicit drug users of some of the responsibility for their problems.

Another stance taken against the self-medication theory is that by arguing that people with addictions are self-medicating, the theory legitimizes drug use, and medication generally, as a way of solving emotional problems. Many people who have been through the process of becoming abstinent feel that any drug use, including medications, allows people to avoid dealing with psychological issues and reinforces denial. In tandem with this, the self-medication theory reinforces the disease model of addiction. It runs the risk of simplifying the complex issue of addiction, which involves many psychological and social factors, to pure physiology.

The Future of the Self-Medication Theory

More people today than ever before are going public with their addiction problems. Addiction and its treatment are no longer hidden in the shadows and the subject of private discussion. Today, the journey is often quite open and public, partially in deference to the sympathy and support that can be mustered to help the addict during their recovery journey. Now the subject of reality TV shows such as “Intervention,” the topic of addiction recovery is something no longer whispered among small groups. Many celebrities and even politicians have openly admitted to past drug use and have made their recovery process very public in the hopes of removing the stigma that use to be attached to it.

With greater social change and more open discussions about drug use and addiction, society has shown more compassion towards those who are suffering from addiction. The recent drug legalization movement and the medical marijuana movement, both of which have become increasingly mainstream, support the self-medication theory. The theory will likely play an important role in current and future concepts of addiction.

How Does Self-Medicating Relate to Addiction?

Turning to drugs and alcohol to cope with difficult situations and feelings is often the first step towards substance abuse. With time, self-medication and substance abuse can lead to drug addiction or alcoholism. Unfortunately, this abuse of drugs and alcohol – and addiction – doesn’t actually help in solving the original issues. Instead, addiction leads to more pain, more problems, and more difficulties in handling the issues that may have initially lead a person to drink or get high.

Addiction and self-medication become a cycle – fostering guilt, depression, anxiety, and health problems, among other things. Many times, addiction begins with self-medication. Denial of a problem often leads to an addiction issue. It’s important to understand what self-medication is so that one can identify and treat the underlying issues before addiction takes hold. Doing so with a mindful focus on the risks can greatly decrease the chance of addiction – it could save a life.

Contact Renaissance Recovery

The compassionate team at Renaissance Recovery can help you manage mental health disorders or chronic pain leading to self-medicating.

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We can help. If you or a loved one is suffering from addiction of any kind, contact us now at [Direct]. Many of our treatment plans are covered under your private health insurance.866.330.9449

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Diana is an addiction expert and licensed marriage and family therapist who has been in the field of mental health for over 10 years.

Joseph Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country