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Drinking to Self-Medicate

April 23, 2020

There are a lot of different reasons that people drink, including socially, to help them relax, or to complement a meal. However, many people drink to try to escape the pain of emotional distress, loss, trauma, or a co-occurring mental health issue. Using alcohol to mask or suppress the symptoms of otherwise untreated or undertreated pain is also commonly called self-medication.

How People Self-Medicate

The path to self-medication is not a difficult one to find. You have a drink, like the way it takes the edge off the pain, or at least distracts you temporarily, and so you have another. Even though the pain never goes away, and the more you drink, the more hangovers you have, the more problems you have in real life, and more, you keep trying to create that initial feeling where there was less pain.
The problem is that alcohol is addictive, and so it is more likely that you will have an alcohol use disorder or suffer serious health or life side effects than it is likely that you will ever numb the pain. In addition to your original purpose of self-medication, you have added the complications of alcohol use, which can negatively impact relationships, school or work, and even the safety of you or others. If alcohol were an actual medication, advertisements would include all of this and more in their fine print. But it’s not something that doctors usually prescribe for their patients’ health, least of all as a treatment for emotional pain.

Why People Self-Medicate

Despite the known risks and campaigns against drunk driving, responsible drinking, and media portrayal of the negative side of too much drinking, people continue to self-medicate with alcohol. Why? Because other people do it. Sometimes it is even learned in the home. Drinking to drown your sorrows is socially acceptable, but the stigma, lack of education about mental health, the difficulties of accessibility, and the expense of actual psychiatric or psychological treatment often prevent well-meaning people from making the appropriate medical decision for pain or trauma.
When you hurt emotionally, whether it be from trauma or loss, abuse or mental illness, the pain is difficult to live with. Opening a beer feels like it might at least deflect the pain for a while, even though a lot of people realize it is not going to solve their problems. You just want the pain to stop, and often you are not thinking through the consequences. Most people are not aware of the benefits of appropriate mental health treatment. Plus, self-medicating is far more accessible, and you may even have friends who will indulge with you, making it seem like the most obvious choice. Even when it is not the healthiest choice.

Co-Occurring Disorders

Formerly called dual diagnosis, when someone has both an alcohol use issue and a mental health issue, it is referred to as a co-occurring disorder. In common terms, it is called taking a bad situation and making it worse. It doesn’t even matter which comes first, the drinking or the mental illness, because your drinking impacts your mental illness just as negatively as your mental illness impacts your alcohol abuse.
Like pouring oil on a fire, drinking to self-medicate for a mental health issue is extremely serious. Mental health conditions are based on physiological malfunctions within the brain. Drinking heavily can also disrupt the neurobiology of your brain, including developing an addiction. This makes it more complicated to treat and recover from both issues, and often can actually create more emotional pain and stress for you.

Is Self-Medication Safe?

Consider taking any type of substance, even over-the-counter medication like cough syrup or ibuprofen, and consuming more than the recommended dosage. Is that safe? Many of those medications are also strongly recommended to not consume more than the recommended times per day or for an extended number of days without consulting a doctor. So no, it is not safe to self-medicate on any substance, and alcohol is definitely included in that list. 
If you are under the age of 21, all alcohol exceeds the daily recommended intake of alcohol. If you are of age, depending on the type and size of drink and your gender, weight, etc., the average recommended intake is 1-1.4 typical drinks per day. Most people who self-medicate exceed this on a regular basis.

Does Self-Medication work?

From a purely scientific and medical standpoint, self-medication is largely ineffective. Because drinking does not solve your problems or cure your pain, and because invariably, it creates more problems, including health and safety issues, self-medication usually has the opposite effect. One of the reasons that mental healthcare exists is to heal and restore both mental and physical health when you have any type of mental health or substance use issue. Seeking appropriate medical treatment is the exact opposite of self-medication, and can have the opposite effect on your life, too.
Using alcohol to self-medicate for pain or untreated mental health issues is only going to add to your problems. If you self-medicate for trauma, loss, or other pain, you may develop not only an addiction to alcohol but also a mental health issue. These are all no-win situations. No matter where you fall in these scenarios, you can get the mental health assistance you need now to heal from the inside out.

Potomac Programs can help you with alcohol use and mental health issues. Call 1-855-809-0409 today. Heal the source of your pain and be safe and healthy.

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