Self-Medicating With Alcohol

What It Means, and How To Stop

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Medically reviewed by Dr. Paul R. Linde, MD on March 2, 2023

What Is Self-Medicating?

“Self-medicating” means attempting to manage depression, physical or emotional pain, trauma, or difficult emotions using substances or behaviors. 

Substances commonly used to self-medicate include alcohol, tobacco, prescription drugs such as opioid painkillers, and recreational drugs like marijuana or cocaine. People also self-medicate with behaviors like gambling, eating, shopping, sex, and working or exercising to excess.

If you use alcohol to self-medicate, you’re far from alone. Alcohol is the “medication” of choice for many people, probably because it’s so widely available. And self-medicating with alcohol is a common factor in developing problem drinking or an alcohol use disorder.1

Medically reviewed by Dr. Paul R. Linde, MD on March 2, 2023

Table of Contents

Why Do People Self-Medicate With Alcohol?

People self-medicate with alcohol to manage symptoms of mental health issues like anxiety, depression, PTSD, and general stress or trauma. Chronic pain is another common reason for self-medicating.

When overwhelming feelings of fear, sadness, hopelessness, anger, stress, or physical pain start to interfere with daily life, it’s often a sign that you need help for an underlying condition. But it sometimes feels faster and easier to cope on your own by simply reaching for a drink.

At first, alcohol might seem to make things better. It temporarily numbs emotional and physical pain. Alcohol slows the central nervous system, reducing symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress and making pain easier to tolerate. It also triggers the release of endorphins and the “feel-good” chemical dopamine. Whatever stress you were experiencing is replaced with a sense of euphoria. Unfortunately, all these improvements are temporary and short-lived.

self-medicating with alcohol

How To Know if You’re Self-Medicating

It’s not always easy to recognize when you’re self-medicating. Drinking is widely viewed as socially acceptable, including the idea of having a few drinks after a long or stressful day. The following are a few signs to look for:

  • You often turn to alcohol when you’re feeling stressed, depressed, anxious, or in pain.
  • Alcohol ultimately makes you feel even worse.
  • Over time, it takes more and more alcohol to experience relief.
  • You feel anxious and uncomfortable when you run out of alcohol or are unable to drink.
  • Your alcohol use is creating more problems, such as issues with your job, finances, relationships, and health.

It’s important to realize when you’re self-medicating, because self-medication can easily slide into abusing alcohol and developing an alcohol use disorder.

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Why Self-Medication Can Hurt More Than It Helps

In the long run, self-medicating makes existing issues worse–and can even lead to new issues as well. When the temporary euphoria of alcohol fades, feelings of depression, anxiety, stress, or pain come roaring back. Coming down from alcohol amplifies these feelings, making them even stronger.

For someone who is self-medicating, the obvious solution is to drink more. However, the more you drink to self-medicate, the more tolerance you build. This means you need more alcohol to experience the same feeling of relief. Over time, this creates a harmful cycle that often leads to dependence. 

Physical dependence comes with many of its own problems, negatively impacting finances, relationships, and health. Excessive alcohol use can cause liver disease, heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, stroke, brain damage, digestive problems, and more. It may also cause pain in the form of small fiber peripheral neuropathy. 

On top of all this, withdrawal from long-term alcohol use can increase sensitivity to pain, making it extremely difficult for chronic pain sufferers to stop drinking. Without intervention, the result is often a severe alcohol use disorder.

How To Stop Self-Medicating With Alcohol

The longer you self-medicate, the harder it becomes to stop. It’s important to try to change your relationship with alcohol as soon as you become aware that you’re self-medicating. 

Taking up a mindfulness practice can be one way to gain perspective on how you’re using alcohol, and what’s motivating you to drink. Mindfulness can increase your ability to observe your behavior, pause, and make different choices. It’s also helpful to find healthier hobbies and distractions like reading, gardening, cooking, journaling, or art. Spend time with supportive friends, go for long walks, and get plenty of exercise and sleep. 

These are all positive steps, but if you’re struggling with severe chronic physical or emotional pain, these strategies may not be enough on their own. There is no shame in seeking additional support or consulting with your doctor.

When alcohol use stems from mental health issues, an integrated treatment plan is often the best approach. The goal is to treat alcohol misuse and manage mental health symptoms at the same time. Strategies for this type of treatment include behavioral therapy, counseling, and medication. 

Ria Health’s online program is one way to access well-rounded support for problem drinking. We blend medical and coaching support with digital tools and prescription medication, and customize treatment to each individual’s needs. Our coaches can help you unlearn self-medicating behaviors around alcohol, and develop healthy coping mechanisms for recovery. The whole process happens through a smartphone app, on your schedule.

If you’re ready to break the cycle of self-medication, learn more about how Ria Health works, or set up an account to get started today.

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