You just finished work, and it was a tough day. Your boss increases your workload every day, but they don’t give you any credit. You feel burned out. You don’t want to go home because you don’t feel ready to handle more tasks or conflicts. So you head to the bar. You tell yourself that after a drink you’ll feel better.
Maybe your relationship isn’t going that well. All the fights have left you feeling drained. You just had another fight, and now you’re angry. You go out with your friends to have a few drinks to forget about your troubles.
Or perhaps you just hand another nightmare, and you woke up in cold sweats. It’s the same dream over and over again because you just can’t get those images out of your head. You want to go back to sleep but you can’t, so you have a drink because that’s what helped in the past.
These may seem like natural reactions to stressful situations because they’re generally considered socially acceptable, but they can be a sign of self-medication. The idea that some people abuse alcohol or drugs as a way to cope with uncomfortable emotions or symptoms of an underlying mental health disorder such as anxiety or depression was formally introduced in a 1985 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry as the self-medication hypothesis.
Self-medicating often leads to addiction, so it’s important to understand what it means, recognize the signs and know the risks involved.
Why Do People Self-Medicate With Alcohol?
Alcohol addiction and mood disorders such as depression frequently co-occur because the path to self-medication is not difficult to find. First of all, many people with mental health disorders have never been diagnosed, so they don’t know that what they’re experiencing isn’t a normal reaction to stress, but a symptom of a deeper underlying issue. Second of all, having a drink to down your sorrows is far more socially acceptable than going to a psychiatrist and getting treatment.
Think about how most people react when you tell them that you’re going through a hard time. Do they offer to accompany you to a psychiatrist’s office or do they invite you out for a night out on the town? Most likely, it’s the second option. Alcohol is also easily accessible to most people, while mental health treatment is not.
The problem is that drinking your sorrows away is by no means a sustainable coping mechanism and alcohol is addictive. In the beginning, a drink might help take the edge off temporarily, but as you build tolerance, it starts to negatively affect both your physical and mental health.
To put it plainly, self-medicating with alcohol means taking a bad situation and making it worse.
Signs That You’re Self-Medicating with Alcohol
Having a drink from time to time or even drinking more than you should isn’t necessarily a sign that you have a mood disorder. As we mentioned before, alcohol is addictive in of itself, and it’s also a depressant, so alcohol abuse can mimic the symptoms of depression. Establishing a cause and effect relationship between alcohol use disorder and a mood disorder such as depression is not as simple as you’d think.
Also, many people will occasionally have a drink because they’re in a bad mood, and it doesn’t necessarily mean they have a drinking problem. So, how do you know if you’re using alcohol to self-medicate?
You might be self-medicating if it becomes a habit. If you regularly turn to alcohol because you’re feeling stressed, worried, lonely or depressed and people in your social circle have expressed concerns regarding your drinking, it’s highly likely that you’re self-medicating.
Another sign is that you start to feel anxious if you’re in a situation where you don’t have immediate access to alcohol for longer stretches of time which has led you to stop engaging in activities you used to enjoy or distance yourself from people that try to prevent you from drinking.
In case your primary care physician has asked you how much you drink and told you that you’re developing health problems associated with heavy drinking, but when you’ve tried to cut back you’ve experienced withdrawal symptoms like nausea, sweating and shakiness, we strongly suggest you look for a rehab for a alcohol detox because this is a serious sign of alcohol use disorder. At a rehabilitation centre, you can get medical assistance so you can safely manage withdrawal.
Alcohol Abuse Worsens Mental Health
Although in the beginning, drinking may bring you some relief from distressing emotions, in the long run, it worsens your ability to cope with them, and you’ll notice that the moods you were trying to escape gradually become more frequent, more intense and last longer.
That’s because of how alcohol affects the brain. We mentioned before that alcohol is a depressant. After just one or two drinks, most people perk up and become more talkative, but if they continue drinking and their BAC (Blood Alcohol Content) rises, they start to experience the sedative effects. That’s when they start to slur their words when they try to talk, or they can’t walk properly and generally have poor coordination.
Alcohol affects the receptor sites for neurotransmitters like dopamine, glutamate and GABA. In small quantities, the increased levels of dopamine in the brain’s reward system will result in a pleasurable state. That’s what motivates people to drink in the first place. However, as you build tolerance, it takes more and more alcohol to reach this state because the brain adapts.
Although you need to ingest higher amounts of alcohol to get the same feeling, this does not mean that your body becomes more resilient to its negative effects. Quite the contrary, prolonged alcohol abuse damages the areas of the brain responsible for impulse control, emotional regulation and decision-making which means you will be more susceptible to stress and difficult emotions and less able to regulate your response to them. Furthermore, prolonged alcohol abuse affects your memory and your ability to focus, making you less productive at work, which, once again, can increase stress levels because it takes you longer to complete the same amount of work, leading to fears about career prospects and income stability.