5 Signs You Might Be Self-Medicating to Deal With Stress

Last Updated on December 2, 2021

It’s not uncommon for people to use drugs to deal with stress, fear, or other complex emotions. But over time, this behavior can grow into addiction and cause serious physical and mental health problems. Alternatively, there are many more positive ways to deal with difficult emotions and stressors. Here’s what you need to know about the dangers of self-medicating to deal with stress and other mental health issues.

What is self-medicating, and is self-medicating bad?

If you’re not familiar with the term, you might be wondering what it means to “self-medicate.” Self-medicating is using drugs or alcohol to manage symptoms of a mental health issue like anxiety or depression.1 

For different people, this behavior might display differently. For example:

  • Maybe you work a very stressful job, so you come home each day and smoke a joint to relax or clear your mind. 
  • Or, perhaps you struggle with overwhelming feelings of anxiety and depression, so you go out and get drunk with your friends every weekend to try to lift your mood and feel better.
  • Another example of self-medicating is using prescription ADHD medication or other stimulant drugs to improve your concentration and focus at work.

Self-medicating with drugs or alcohol is not a healthy way to deal with emotions or life problems. The main problem with this behavior is that, although it may provide some short-term relief, it never lasts. In the end, it only makes the problems worse. Misusing drugs or alcohol to deal with stress will only exacerbate the stress you feel because it causes undesirable physical side effects, relationship problems, financial difficulties, and poor performance at work or school.

In addition, self-medicating to deal with stress will only delay recovery and keep you from getting the help you need to effectively deal with stress, mental health problems, and other life challenges. However, the sooner you get help, the better.

What causes people to self-medicate?

People self-medicate with drugs and alcohol for various reasons. Some of the most common causes of self-medicating include:

  • Masking negative emotions like stress, sadness, hopelessness, or fear
  • Dealing with uncertainty like financial difficulties, job loss, social turmoil, etc.
  • Coping with unpleasant memories or traumatic life events
  • Facing difficult daily situations
  • Staying on task or boosting performance at work or school 

Some people who self-medicate with drugs or alcohol may be unaware that they have a mental health disorder. On the other hand, others may be aware of it but don’t know how to cope. Or, they might feel that seeking treatment is more difficult than just attempting to treat the problem on their own.

Forms of self-medicating due to stress

If you’re dealing with chronic or overwhelming amounts of stress (or mental health issues), you might self-medicate in a few different ways:

  • Alcohol: Abusing alcohol is a very prevalent form of self-medicating because it’s easy to get, and its numbing effects can provide temporary relief from stress and other issues. Drinking is often a social activity, which can also be a good distraction from mental health issues. Although alcohol use disorder is the most common type of substance use disorder in the United States, alcohol is a depressant.2 That means its effects will ultimately make you feel more anxious, depressed, and stressed.
  • Prescription or illegal drugs: It’s also easy to get opioids, ADHD medication, and pills for anxiety from a doctor, making prescription drugs another common way to escape stress and mental health problems. Additionally, using illegal drugs like cocaine, marijuana, and heroin to manage uncomfortable emotions is common, but they are highly addictive. Besides, street drugs carry a whole range of potential risks and dangers due to their unregulated manufacturing and distribution.
  • Nicotine: Many people also rely on cigarettes or other tobacco problems to help them relax or focus. However, these substances also have a lot of significant health risks and can make some mental health symptoms worse.
  • Food: Food, especially sweets or high-fat fast foods, can provide a sense of comfort in overwhelming situations. Many people find themselves reaching for treats or junk food when they feel stressed, which only contributes to poor health and mood in the long run.

Clinicians first started writing about the self-medication theory of addiction in the 1980s when they realized heroin addicts were using the drug to manage symptoms of underlying mental health stressors, like loneliness or anger.3 This research helped establish the common belief that some people may use drugs or alcohol to cope with emotional pain due to a lack of proper treatment and a healthy social support system. As a result, they may develop substance use disorders.

The self-medication theory of addiction encourages a more compassionate approach to addiction treatment because it encourages doctors, therapists, and addiction treatment specialists to work toward the same goal of addressing the physical addiction as well as the underlying causes of it.

In addition, the basic understanding of self-medication theory informs substance abuse treatment and therapy, opening up alternative options to care for people with addiction. For example, doctors and addiction treatment professionals may encourage effective drug-free alternatives like exercise therapy instead of just prescribing antidepressants for people suffering from major depressive disorder (MDD).4

How do you know if you’re self-medicating?

As mentioned above, you may not always realize when you’re self-medicating to deal with chronic stress or other issues. If you feel like this may be the case for you, here are five common signs that are red flags. 

1. You turn to drugs or alcohol when you feel stressed.

If you regularly use drugs or alcohol to cope with daily stress, there’s a strong chance you are self-medicating. You’re also likely to use them to deal with other negative emotions, challenging life transitions, relationship problems, and other issues.

2. You feel anxious when you don’t have access to your drug of choice.

Do you feel uncomfortable when you can’t get your go-to substance? For example, maybe you have to wait until payday to restock your liquor supply. Or you’re running out of your prescription and don’t know how you’ll get more. If you find yourself freaking out at the thought of being faced with these situations, you’re probably self-medicating.

3. It takes more alcohol or drugs to feel any relief.

The more you use alcohol or drugs to deal with stress, the higher your tolerance will be. For instance, perhaps one strong drink used to take the edge off your stress, but now, you need at least two or three to feel better. This is a sign that your tolerance for alcohol has increased. As a result, so will the side effects of your drinking, which will only contribute to your stress.

4. The drugs and alcohol have created more stress, and you feel worse, not better.

At first, maybe going out for drinks with your friends or having a glass of wine each night made you feel less stressed. But now, maybe you’ve realized that after those feel-good effects wear off, you just feel worse. If it’s getting harder and harder to dig yourself out of that hole, you’re likely self-medicating and will need help to find real, lasting relief.

5. Friends and family have expressed concern about your behavior.

If your friends and family have approached you to let you know that they’re worried about you, they might be onto something. It’s often difficult to see when we’ve taken things too far or have a clear perspective on our well-being.  If someone you trust and know very well tells you that you need to get help, it’s a good idea to listen and take action.

This list is by no means an exhaustive list of signs you might be self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, but it’s a good starting point to help you determine whether you need help.

How to stop self-medicating with drugs and alcohol

Once you’re addicted, it can be challenging to stop self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. Regardless, the first step is getting professional help. The first step of getting sober is often detox. Drug and alcohol detox can help your body adjust to the absence of addictive substances and provide medical management of uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. To find a detox center, do a quick Google search for “detoxification near me” and make sure to choose an accredited detox center that has positive reviews from previous clients. Many detox centers also accept insurance or offer several alternative payment options to ensure that treatment is affordable for those who need it.

After detox, a reputable and evidence-based drug rehab program can help you recognize your self-medicating behavior, change the internal beliefs that fuel it, and find healthier ways to cope with stress and other mental health issues. One study published in the peer-reviewed journal Depression and Anxiety found that providing and encouraging alternative coping strategies for mood and anxiety disorders may reduce self-medicating, the development of addiction, and the comorbidity of mood and anxiety disorders with substance use disorders.5

Currently, the gold standard for substance abuse treatment is to treat mood disorders and addiction concurrently. This effectively addresses the physical dependence and the underlying causes of the addiction simultaneously, improving a person’s likelihood of long-term sobriety.

Get help with drug and alcohol rehab in Austin, TX

If you’re struggling to cope with stress or mental health issues without misusing drugs or alcohol, the caring professionals at Nova Recovery Center can help. We offer 90-day rehab in Austin, Texas, that provides holistic and individualized care. Our Austin recovery center also offers an intensive outpatient program, online or in-person, for those who need a more flexible schedule that allows them to continue working or going to school while receiving adequate addiction treatment.

After rehab, we can also help you get into sober living in Austin, Texas, Houston, Texas, or Colorado Springs, Colorado. Please call (888) 427-4932 to get started today. 


  1. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/addictions/self-medicating.htm 
  2. https://www.drugabuse.gov/drug-topics/alcohol 
  3. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-1-4613-1837-8_7 
  4. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Jan-Knapen/publication/267738670_Exercise_therapy_improves_both_mental_and_physical_health_in_patients_with_major_depression/links/601ea56ea6fdcc37a808e69b/Exercise-therapy-improves-both-mental-and-physical-health-in-patients-with-major-depression.pdf 
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6175215/ 

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