Anxiety is a condition experienced by people around the world. The causes of anxiety vary wildly from person to person but often are exhibited with similar symptoms: short temper, a feeling of restlessness, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating. Along with  anxiety being a common problem, the use of substances to cope with it is also extremely common. Many who employ substances to deal with anxiety think of their use as self-medicating to deal with stress. However, the use of substances such as alcohol or opioids to address anxiety conditions can often lead to compounding the issue by giving rise to more problems. 

Anxiety & Self-Medicating

In my experience as a mental health professional I have seen time and again individuals self medicating to deal with mental health disorders and the stressors of their lived experience. Individuals dealing with schizo-effective disorders, generalized anxiety disorder, and bi-polar disorder utilize alcohol as a way to alleviate their symptoms. I have also found neuro-typical individuals who self medicate just to deal with their day-to-day lives. Think of the folks who have physically strenuous jobs unable to sleep without opioids due to physical pain or the houseless population that are trapped in lives of stress and substance abuse who utilize alcohol in order to make themselves numb to what must feel like the hopelessness of their situation. The commonality found between these individual and tragic stories are anxiety and substance abuse. For both the housed and unhoused person, there persists what is commonly known as a maladaptive coping mechanism to deal with their anxiety. 

As I stated earlier, the self medication of alcohol as a sleep aid is, in my experience, the most common. The use of alcohol as a way of dealing with stress is propagated in television, film, music, and in the advertisements for alcohol itself. Substance abuse as a means to deal with anxiety has even infiltrated our colloquial language (a restaurant’s “happy hour” is commonly 4-6pm, right after most work shifts end, a nightcap is a drink taken right before going to bed). Maladaptive coping mechanisms such as using alcohol as a means to deal with anxiety are dangerous due to the ubiquity with which we experience them.

Helping Loved Ones

For those who are seeking to help loved ones that are self medicating to deal with stress there are a few signs to watch for; when one is confronted with an uncomfortable or stress-inducing situation one’s first instinct is to use (“I just need a drink to steady my nerves really quick”),  a fixation on when one can drink or use next (“Man, I can’t wait to get to the bar after work”), and increased anxiety when one’s ability to get drunk or high is impeded by either professional or social obligations (“Do you think I need to be at mom’s birthday?”). As their loved one, it is important to approach these people with compassion concerning their anxiety first, not their problem of self medicating. Addicts are often avoidant in order to not feel like a burden; when trying to address an addict that is self medicating to deal with anxiety, one must keep in mind that they may perceive their anxiety or stress as  something they alone have to deal with. The first step is offering a sympathetic ear to hear what stressors they are facing and offering them help.  

Substance abuse and anxiety creates a vicious cycle where one feeds on the other and in turn creates more and more obstacles to overcome. However, as one may assume, the reduction of substance abuse will more than likely lead to the subsiding of anxiety and vice versa. If you feel that you may be self medicating to deal with stress, the first step is to tell a friend that does not use or a therapist that specializes in addictions medicine.