Self medicating

When people come to see me for the first time to discuss mental health issues they've been struggling with, it is usually after several years of symptoms that are now getting worse and harder to simply cope with on their own.

One of the most common coping strategies I hear about for many mental health issues, particularly anxiety and mood symptoms, is alcohol.

People start out thinking a drink or two will relax them or 'take the edge off'. They think it will take away nerves, help them sleep or elevate their mood. Unfortunately, this is not the case. In the vast majority of cases, the use of alcohol as a self-medicating strategy is not effective. In the rare case that it seems to help temporarily, it is just that - a temporary bandage that may provide a few hours of relief, but little more.

More unfortunate than its lack of effectiveness at treating psychological symptoms, is the increased risk of alcohol dependence that comes from using it as a self-medicating strategy.

A new study from scientists at Johns Hopkins University found that those who self-medicate mood symptoms with alcohol are three times more likely to develop alcohol dependency than those who do not self-medicate with alcohol.

Data came from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. This was conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and consisted of interviews with approximately 43,000 Americans. More than 4,000 of these were found to have mood symptoms but not alcohol dependence and these were asked whether they used alcohol to self-medicate their mood symptoms.

Using the results of the second survey, researchers evaluated whether subjects who self-medicated with alcohol were more likely to develop dependence than those who had not used it to self-medicate mood symptoms.

Those who had used alcohol to self-medicate were three times more likely to develop dependence than those who had not.

Researchers also wanted to know if those who both self-medicated and became dependent on alcohol were more likely to have persistent alcohol dependence. This was true. Those who had self-medicated were three times more likely to remain alcohol dependent as those who had not self-medicated.

Interestingly, this link held even for those who did get treatment for their mood disorder. It also held for those who didn't meet the criteria for a full blown psychiatric condition, but who just had some mood symptoms and self-medicated.

This simply reinforces the truth that it is dangerous to use alcohol to help us feel better.

When a low mood or anxious feelings persist and are not related to specific life events, you should consider that you may be experiencing psychiatric symptoms. A few things you can do to try to help yourself are to keep a regular sleep/wake cycle, assess whether there are any stressful things you can limit from your life and be sure to get regular exercise. Avoiding substances like caffeine and alcohol are also recommended. If your symptoms persist, speak with your doctor. Help is available.


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