12 Jun The Dangers of Self-Medicating with Drugs and Alcohol
By Colin Gilbert
From an early age, Michael struggled with anxiety and depression. As a child, he always felt awkward in social gatherings, and, as a result, he did his best to avoid social interaction during adolescence and into his early teenage years. Solitude made him feel more comfortable, yet he couldn’t help feeling left out when he heard stories from his classmates about parties or school functions. Over time, he began to resent the social phobia and eventually decided to do something about it.
Michael had seen his dad drink beers after work and his mom share martinis with her friends, and he noticed how relaxed they seemed while drinking. So, during a family barbecue one summer afternoon, when his many relatives were socializing in the backyard, 14 year-old Michael spotted a half-empty beer and sneakily carried it around a corner. After a few cautious sips, he felt a rush of comfort and pleasure that thrilled him in a way nothing else ever had. He was tremendously excited by the foreign sensation of relaxed happiness, and before he knew it, the cup was empty. Instinctively, Michael went in search of another.
A short time later, Michael was considered “that crazy guy” at parties, doing keg stands and drinking vast quantities of whatever type of alcohol he could get his hands on. He liked the feeling of being known for something and the popularity that came with it, and before he knew it, he was secretly drinking before school to loosen up and remain “that crazy guy” at school. As an adult, Michael is now an alcoholic struggling with serious health issues. His marriage ended in divorce when his wife left him because of his drinking, and his life is spiraling out of control. And it all began with that half-cup of beer when he was 14.
For many people like Michael, alcohol and other drugs provide relief from daily struggles. However, for those who routinely look for something to “take the edge off,” serious problems with dependency may lie just under the surface. What may initially seem like a handy tool for dealing with uncomfortable situations can quickly become an all-encompassing, devastating addiction. Reliance on drugs like alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, or painkillers to soothe the mind is nothing short of addiction, warranting a change in behavior and, in many cases, professional help.
Mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder are the most common targets of self-medication, although other conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or various forms of chronic physical distress, can also lead individuals to administer their own form of treatment.
The potential dangers of self-medicating are plentiful, and chief among them is the threat of addiction. A 2007 report in the American Journal of Psychiatry identified a clear correspondence between social anxiety and alcohol dependence. The report explained that people suffering from anxiety are vulnerable to a snowballing reliance on alcohol because as alcohol wears off, the resulting withdrawals can cause greater anxiety, which in turn increases the likelihood of further drinking. Alcohol can also exacerbate feelings of depression as it wears off, tempting users to drink more.
Although self-medicating is often considered to be an adult behavior, young people are also at risk. A 2008 report from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) revealed an alarming link between teen drug use and depression. The study described a common scenario of teens treating feelings of depression with marijuana and other drugs, only to prolong their suffering and develop more significant mental health problems in the future. According to the report, depressed teens are twice as likely as non-depressed teens to use illegal drugs, and many become addicted.
Those who self-medicate with alcohol or other drugs are urged to seek healthier, less dangerous methods of coping with their discomfort. Recommended alternatives to self-medication include improved dietary habits, regular exercise, natural remedies, counseling, and other forms of therapy. Also, a doctor can be consulted to decide whether prescription medicines would be beneficial. There are many healthy, legal options available for overcoming every kind of mental and physical pain, and for escaping the bondage of addiction.
Self-medication with drugs and alcohol may seem like an innocuous way to make it through the day, but in reality, it is not a prudent choice. Alcohol and other drugs mask unpleasant symptoms but never reach the roots of the discomfort. In order to truly conquer chronic pain, experts say the suffering must be courageously faced. Then, strategies for working through the hardship can be considered, and the affliction can be genuinely overcome.
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