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Alcohol & Health
Helping Alcoholics
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Updated on August 21, 2023
7 min read

What Are the Dangers of Self-Medicating with Alcohol

Why Do People Self-Medicate?

Self-medicating means abusing drugs or alcohol to manage symptoms of a mental health disorder or other illness. It’s also a form of substance abuse.

People who have a mental illness and other conditions may turn to self-medication. According to a survey, 77% of respondents reported self-medicating for their health conditions.11

The causes of self-medication vary for each person. Some examples of self-medication are:

  • Attempting to deal with past trauma
  • Addressing social anxiety
  • Boredom
  • Changing habits or influencing moods
  • Coping mechanism for mental health conditions
  • Coping with a diagnosed health condition
  • Cost of healthcare or substance abuse treatment
  • Dealing with relationship issues
  • Fitting in or peer pressure
  • Influence sleep patterns
  • Maintaining performance for jobs
  • Handling stress
  • Relieving uncomfortable symptoms
  • Handling withdrawal

Popular substances for self-medication include alcohol, cocaine, and marijuana. 


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What are the Risks of Self-Medication?

Self-medication can negatively impact your mood and emotional well-being. This can trap you in a downward spiral of increased substance abuse or addiction.6 

Other risks of self-medication include:6

  • Incorrect self-diagnosis
  • Potential adverse reactions
  • Worsening pre-existing conditions
  • Dangerous drug interaction
  • Masking of severe diseases
  • Delays for proper medical treatment

Self-medication can also impact your work performance. It’s hazardous if you work physical jobs such as truck driving, mining, or construction.

How Can Self-Medication Aggravate Medical Conditions?

If you have pre-existing medical conditions, self-medication can worsen the situation. It may alleviate your pain, but it won’t fix the root of the problem.

Once the effects of the substance wear off, the problem can come back worse than before. This can negatively affect your sleep, energy, and immune system.

Self-medicating with alcohol can cause or even worsen conditions like:

What Are The Signs of Self-Medication?

It can be hard to see if someone is self-medicating. Sometimes people don’t even know they’re self-medicating because the drugs are often legal and accessible.

Knowing if you or a loved one is self-medicating requires careful examination. Keep a close eye on their motives and behavior to see if they’ve been self-medicating.

Some of the most common signs of self-medication are:3

Social Isolation and Secrecy

People who self-medicate may choose to avoid friends and family. They’ll also avoid activities or other social events.

Typically they don’t want you to know what they do with their time. They do this to avoid being judged or spend more time using their preferred substance. 

Personality Changes

When a person self-medicates, they may exhibit unusual or new behavior. They can be more temperamental or prone to bursts of anger.

They’ll change their hobbies or what they do with their free time. They may also spend time with people who enable their behavior.

Neglectful Behavior

You may notice that when someone is self-medicating, they’ll be more neglectful. They can have difficulty taking care of themselves, which leads to neglecting things like hygiene or nutrition.

They may also find it challenging to meet social obligations or responsibilities. They can start having difficulties with school, work, or other areas of life.

Financial Difficulties

When a person self-medicates, they can start having financial problems. Because alcohol and over-the-counter drugs are accessible, they’ll usually spend a lot of money to get them.

Unusual spending habits or financial difficulties (alongside other symptoms) can signify self-medication.

Increased Tolerance

Frequent self-medication can increase a person’s tolerance to a substance. They will start needing more of it to reach the desired effect.

They may become dependent on the substance if they self-medicate to relieve pain or uncomfortable symptoms. 

Co-Occurring Disorders

People who self-medicate tend to have a co-occurring mental illness. They may start using drugs or alcohol to handle their condition.

Stress can also cause a person to self-medicate. If you start to notice that someone you know is drinking to cope with their issues, it may be a sign of self-medication.


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How Is Self-Medication Related to Co-Occurring Disorders?

When people are self-medicating, it could indicate an undiagnosed mental health condition. However, it’s difficult to determine whether the substance use disorder or mental health condition came first. 

Self-medicating can be dangerous because of how the substance can worsen existing symptoms. Depending on the mental health condition, improper treatment can cause self-harm or harm others.

Some disorders with increased risk for self-medication include:


Depression is a mood disorder associated with feelings of sadness, anger, or loss that impact daily life. Depressed people may resort to alcohol to cope with their condition.3

They consider alcohol an effective treatment for their persistent sadness. However, people who self-medicate their depression with alcohol can worsen their symptoms.

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is a severe psychological disorder that involves specific variations of an individual’s mood, behavior, and emotions. 

It's not unusual for people with bipolar disorder to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs to alleviate their depression or mania.1


Some people are genetically predisposed to developing schizophrenia, which can develop after extended substance use.7 People with schizophrenia self-medicate to relieve the depression and anxiety caused by the condition. 

Using drugs to self-medicate schizophrenia can exacerbate symptoms and worsen their severity. Popular substances include alcohol, nicotine, and, especially, marijuana.8

Physical and Emotional Abuse

Abuse can lead to issues with anxiety, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  Studies show that traumatized children have a heightened risk for substance misuse.2

Anxiety and substance abuse can feed into each other in a destructive cycle. People with PTSD may not seek professional help, resorting to partying, drinking, or using illegal drugs. Excessive eating is another common coping mechanism for those with PTSD.


People with ADHD tend to self-medicate for a variety of reasons. This is due to difficulties in areas such as:

  • Education
  • Employment
  • Socialization
  • Self-esteem

They’ll often seek stimulants to boost their focus. This includes caffeine, nicotine, and illegal drugs, such as cocaine. Alcohol is also popular—over one-third of adults with ADHD have an alcohol use disorder (AUD).6


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What Substances Do People Most Commonly Self-Medicate With?

People may self-medicate with both legal and illegal drugs. Studies show that people most commonly self-medicate with alcohol.11

Because they're so widely available, prescription drugs are also popular. This includes amphetamine and methylphenidate medications to treat ADHD and Xanax.

Other popular substances used to self-medicate include:


People typically self-medicate as a quick fix for emotional or mental issues and other symptoms. 

Nicotine creates an immediate sense of relaxation. Some people may resort to smoking to ‘help’ remedy stress, depression, or anxiety.


Caffeine is a popular stimulant to help you perk up and feel energized. 

Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system and acts as an antidepressant by elevating serotonin and dopamine. Because of this mood boost, some people may not realize they’re self-medicating with caffeine.


Cocaine and other similar stimulants affect the reward center of your brain. This gives you a spike of dopamine which can make you feel good.

These stimulants can also help you focus, be productive, and be “happy.” Cocaine’s ability to make you feel good is one of the reasons why it’s commonly used to self-medicate.


People often use marijuana for its relaxing and calming effects. Marijuana is often used for self-medication to reduce depressive thoughts and aid in sleep.


Binge eating, comfort eating, or emotional eating is a form of self-medication. It’s also a common way for those with depression to self-medicate.

Binge eating can suppress or soothe negative emotions. It may even temporarily reduce stress.

Treatment Options for Self-Medication & Addiction

Aside from chronic pain, self-medication is generally linked to underlying mental health issues. The most effective intervention is a treatment plan that addresses both problems at the same time.4 

If you or a loved one are self-medicating, here are some treatment options to consider:


Self-medication is a form of substance abuse to manage symptoms of a mental health disorder or other illness. It’s a dangerous practice that can lead to short-term and long-term health problems.

An underlying mental health condition typically causes self-medication. It can also worsen the condition it’s trying to fix.

Self-medicating is common due to the accessibility and availability of drugs and alcohol. Treatment focuses on treating substance use disorder and mental health conditions simultaneously.

Updated on August 21, 2023
8 sources cited
Updated on August 21, 2023
All Alcoholrehabhelp content is medically reviewed or fact checked to ensure as much factual accuracy as possible.

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All content created by Alcohol Rehab Help is sourced from current scientific research and fact-checked by an addiction counseling expert. However, the information provided by Alcohol Rehab Help is not a substitute for professional treatment advice.
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