Self-Medicating Can Lead to Substance Abuse

Self-Medicating Can Lead to Substance Abuse

Self-medication refers to the practice of using a substance to relieve problem feelings such as stress, anger or depression. People who practice self-medication most often reach for drugs or alcohol to wipe away the experience of unwanted emotions. Doing so, however, puts people at risk for outright abuse of those substances, according to findings in a 2011 study.

The Study

A Canadian-led study used U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism survey results to track the co-morbidity (co-occurrence) of anxiety disorders and substance abuse. Close to 35,000 American adults took part in the national survey. There were study participants who reported that in the year prior to the survey, they had abused substances; 12.5 percent reported self-medicating through alcohol and 24.4 percent said they had done so with drugs.

The study created three groups among survey participants:

  1. Persons who reported no self-medication
  2. Persons who reported self-medicating with alcohol alone
  3. Persons who reported self-medicating with drugs who may or may not have also self-medicated addition.

The Results

The study team discovered the following:

  • Above 12 percent of those surveyed who met anxiety disorder criteria and self-medicated through alcohol went on to develop an alcohol disorder (compared to less than 5 percent who did not self-medicate but went on to develop an alcohol disorder).
  • Among those who began with an alcohol disorder and went on to develop an anxiety disorder, 5.7 percent developed a panic disorder and 10 percent developed a social phobia (or type of anxiety disorder that creates strong fears about being embarrassed in a social gathering or environment).
  • Among those who began self-medicating with drugs, 8 percent went on to develop a panic disorder (one form of anxiety disorder); 13.5 percent went on to develop a specific phobia; and 20 percent later developed a social phobia.

The study results indicate that when people self-medicate to combat their anxiety, they may wind up battling various anxiety disorders – particularly social phobia – as well. Self-medication really only smudges the symptoms of anxiety without treating the problem. Therefore it seems the anxiety eventually reappears in another form. The full report of the study results can be found in the August 2011 edition of the Archives of General Psychiatry.

If self-medicating behaviors could be reduced, it could possibly lead to concurrent reductions in substance abuse and/or social phobia incidences as well. The results of this study are significant insofar as they lead to preventive primary care and psychiatric care efforts. Educating patients about the risks of co-morbidity for those who self-medicate is one such potential preventive measure. In the future, it could be both interesting and helpful to track how effective treatment of anxiety disorders might result in fewer instances of substance abuse.

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