According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in the United States. These disorders affect approximately 40 million adults aged 18 and older, which accounts for around 18% of the population. It’s not uncommon for anxiety sufferers to also suffer with depression, or vice-versa. ADAA reports that “Nearly one-half of those diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.” In fact, according to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA), major depressive order alone affects 14.8 million adults (6.7% of the U.S. population aged 18 and older).
How to Know if Someone is Self-Medicating
Are you or a loved one self-medicating? Below are some signs of abusing substances as a substitute for medical or psychiatric care:
- Using when you feel nervous, stressed, or anxious, or uncomfortable.
- Symptoms worsen after you’ve used your substance of choice.
- Experiencing social, financial, or additional health problems as a result of use.
The Dangers of Self-Medication
While potentially harmful and debilitating to afflicted individuals, both anxiety and depression are both very treatable. There are a variety of treatment options available to individuals who suffer from anxiety or depression, or both. Most patients benefit from a combination of therapy and medication, but many people can also recover with therapy alone.
However, alarmingly, many individuals are turning to self-medication rather than seeking legitimate treatment for their needs. According to the National Institute of Health, “Using alcohol or drugs to reduce emotional distress (self-medication) has been proposed as an explanation for the high comorbidity rates between anxiety and substance use disorders. Self-medication has been minimally studied in mood disorders despite equally high rates of alcohol and drug use.” This data was derived from the National Epidemic Survey on Alcohol Related Conditions (NESARC) which is a large, nationally representative survey of mental illness in community-dwelling adults.
The results were concerning to say the least. According to the NIH: “Almost one-quarter of individuals with mood disorders (24.1%) used alcohol or drugs to relieve symptoms. The highest prevalence of self-medication was seen in bipolar I disorder (41.0%). Men were more than twice as likely as women to engage in self-medication. After controlling for the effects of substance use disorders, self-medication was associated with higher odds of comorbid anxiety and personality disorders when compared to individuals who did not self-medicate.”
In other words, self-medicating with drugs and alcohol is surprisingly common amongst individuals with “mood disorders.” Self-medication is also associated with substantial psychiatric comorbidity – the occurrence of two or more psychiatric disorders within a patient. Because of this, individuals who self-medicate may experience greater psychological distress and multiple disorders than individuals who seek qualified psychiatric and/or medical treatment for their existing conditions.
Types of Self-Medication
There are various ways in which an individual can self-medicate for anxiety and depression. Some of the most common forms are listed below:
Self-Medication with Food
Occasionally referred to as “emotional eaters,” individuals who self-medicate with food use it as a means of suppressing or soothing negative emotions. This can result in episodes of binge-eating, or eating excessively. While eating comfort foods occasionally to treat mild symptoms of upset can be relatively harmless, binge-eating to treat depression is unhealthy and potentially worsen the symptoms of the individual’s existing mental-illness.
Self-Medication with Psychostimulants (cocaine, meth, etc.)
Psychostimulants like cocaine and amphetamines are frequently abused because of the temporary feelings of euphoria these drugs can cause. These drugs are also very addictive and can worsen the symptoms of anxiety and depression. Psychostimulants are also life-threatening. They do major damage to the body’s cardiovascular system. Cocaine-related deaths frequently occur as a result of sudden heart-failure and amphetamines speed up the heart’s functioning which can increase the risk of stroke. While the highs from such substances might temporarily distract from depression, the lows that occur once the high has diminished may worsen existing symptoms.
Self-Medication with Opioids/Opiates (heroin, painkillers, methadone, etc.)
Opioids are derived from the poppy plant and include codeine and morphine. Drugs that mimic the effects of these opioids is known as an opiate. Drugs that fall within the category of opiates include heroin, methadone, and oxycodone. Depression combined with abuse of these drugs is surprisingly common and unfortunately results can be deadly.
Self-Medication with Alcohol
A little alcohol every now and again can be argued to be relatively harmless, but using alcoholism as a treatment of anxiety and depression will more than likely lead to alcoholism, which can worsen symptoms of both disorders. Moreover, alcoholism is an additional debilitating disease which requires time and dedication to recover from and can be difficult to overcome in conjunction with other existing disorders.
Self-Medication with Marijuana/Cannabis
Marijuana is the most widely used illicit substance amongst those with depressive disorders. Excessive use, however, can actually worsen symptoms of depression. Not to mention, using marijuana comes with a number of legal consequences as recreational and even medicinal use of the drug is a controversial subject across the United States. Consequently, marijuana is still illegal in many places.
Self-Medication with Caffeine (coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks, etc.)
Caffeine is a stimulant, meaning that it raises levels of physiological or nervous activity in the body. While substances like coffee and tea can occasionally perk one up, particularly when they’re feeling otherwise exhausted, these effects are only temporary. Once the high produced by caffeine dissipates, the body’s insulin levels drop, causing worsened symptoms of depression and anxiety and feelings of confusion.
Getting Help for Self-Medicating
Rather than self-medicating, individuals struggling with depression and anxiety should seek safe and qualified forms of medical and/or psychiatric treatment. If you feel as though you might be abusing substances to cope with your anxiety or depression, the best method of truly recovering is to reduce and/or cease use of the substance you are using to self-medicate and instead seek help from a safer and more reliable source.