It’s a relatively common impulse response to stress: “I need a drink.” After a long day at work, hours spent on the phone fighting an incorrect bill, an argument with your spouse or child, or when a host of little stressors add up, many turn to alcohol or marijuana for respite.
For those living with mental health symptoms (e.g., depression, anxiety, and others), the urge to try to manage uncomfortable emotions with a drink, a joint, or a pill can be even stronger. Though initially the use of alcohol and other substances may quell these feelings of anxiety, stress, or depression, too much can cause a host of other problems – and no longer work to lessen the symptoms of the mental health issue but actually increase the frequency and severity of those symptoms.
Unfortunately, self-medication can create a desperate cycle: patients who feel depressed or anxious and turn to alcohol or drugs end up feeling more depressed or anxious – and crave substances even more. It’s hard to break free once you get started, and often by the time it’s clear that there’s a problem, treatment for substance abuse is necessary in addition to treatment for the original mental health issues.
Professional Care vs. Self-Medication
Many people believe that a drink to manage stress is harmless and no different than taking antidepressants or other medications prescribed by a doctor – but it’s very different. Managed medical and psychological care that includes medication provides you with supervision by the prescribing physician or psychiatrist. Plus, you would take a specified dose of an evidence-based medication given to you based upon your symptoms and/or diagnosis. The medication and dosage have been shown to be effective in their ability to assist you in managing intrusive mental health symptoms, and the same cannot be said of the ability of an alcoholic beverage to help you effectively manage an ongoing mental health issue. If the medications do not work, the doctor will either change your dose, offer you a new medication, or prescribe an additional medication as needed; comparatively, there is no one to assist you when alcohol or the other drugs you choose to take do not serve the purpose you intended.
Additionally, your prescribing physician and/or psychiatrist should connect you with some holistic treatment measures that will help you to decrease the severity of your symptoms or assist you in identifying the signs of an oncoming episode so you can take action or utilize healthy coping skills rather than abuse substances. A range of therapies may be effective, depending upon your diagnosis.
In addition to being less effective than professional mental health treatment in the management of stress and mental health symptoms, self-medication is almost always harmful to the user. There are a number of risks associated with using any illicit substance for this purpose, including:
- Mental health symptoms including stress, insomnia, depression, and anxiety almost always worsen, and the number of episodes usually increases, as well.
- The person is too close to the situation, in the haze of substance abuse, and unable to identify when symptoms worsen or the drug use becomes its own problem.
- Using or drinking too much or mixing drugs can create medical emergencies, including overdose.
- Drug use and drinking can negatively interact with medications taken for the treatment of underlying physical or mental health issues.
- Addiction can occur when any addictive substance is used chronically.
The mixing of medications and alcohol is an exceedingly common occurrence. Americans hoping to reduce stress, alleviate boredom, or self-medicate depression, grief, and/or anxiety very often drink with little thought given to the medications they are taking. According to Fox News, about 71 percent of Americans drink, and a new study published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research found that 43 percent of Americans combine alcohol with prescription medications that can interact dangerously together. For seniors over the age of 65, that percentage almost doubles to 79 percent.
Why is this a problem? Aaron White was co-author of the study. In a news release, he said: “Mixing alcohol and other sedatives, like sleeping pills, narcotic pain medications, or muscle relaxers, can compound these problems and potentially cause injuries and death. They can cause sleepiness, problems with coordination, and potentially suppress brain stem areas tasked with controlling vital reflexes like breathing, heart rate, and gagging to clear the airway.”
Symptoms of depression and anxiety will not necessarily diminish on their own over time unless they are brought about by an acute event. In most cases, if these emotions become problematic for more than a few months, then an underlying mental health disorder may be the cause, and medical care is an immediate necessity.
When people opt to self-medicate rather than seek treatment, they very rarely stop after one drink or one joint – and it’s not a once-a-week affair. Too often, those who use substances to manage mood and emotion usually do so whenever they are outside their comfort zones. It can grow into a daily occurrence – often multiple times per day. When someone uses any addictive substance regularly, they develop a physical tolerance for the drug; when they use it as a crutch or feel that they need it to get by – as often becomes the case with self-medication – then there is a psychological dependence as well. The two together add up to an addiction, and when the negative consequences of that addiction begin to pile up and the person is still unable to stop drinking or getting high, it’s clear that treatment is necessary.
A More Positive Path: Holistic and Medical Management
Professional treatment can do more than throw a pill at the problem when mental health symptoms are a daily struggle. Learning how to make small changes can add up to a huge shift in perspective and experience. Some of these small changes that make a big difference can include:
- Getting a good night’s sleep
- Eating healthfully and cutting back on processed foods, sugar, unsaturated fat, and salt
- Getting regular exercise
- Cutting out negative or emotionally taxing relationships
- Increasing positive friendships
- Making a concerted effort to let go of the past and find contentment in the present
When a mental health disorder is the underlying issue, it may not be enough to make these changes – or making these changes simply may not feel possible without help. Consulting a mental health professional – including getting substance abuse treatment if drug and alcohol abuse is a part of the equation – can help you to get back on solid ground and get the guidance you need to learn how to manage mental health symptoms for the long-term.