“Almost every aspect of human life has become narcotic in some way: made more enhanced, more accessible, more plentiful, more fresh, more powerful, so that it is now possible to ‘addict’ to almost anything,” says Dr. Lempke. Anecdotally she says, “We’re seeing it more and more. We’re seeing people addicted to Candy Crush, addicted to Instagram, addicted to League of Legends, addicted to donuts.”
In short, self-medication doesn’t just feel like rip shots because you’re feeling stressed or upset. It is important to keep an eye on all the different forms it may take.
What are the warning signs that you may be self-medicating?
A major red flag to look out for: You’re using drugs or alcohol (or anything else mentioned above, really) to change the way you feel or to somehow escape your current reality. For example: “I’m depressed or can’t sleep, so I’m going to drink a pint or drink some wine,” says Dr. Lembeck. “Or I’m worried: I’m going to smoke because I’m so anxious.”
From there, you may find that you no longer do some of the things that once made you feel good, and turn straight to your material of choice instead. You may be spending less time with — or even actively avoiding — your friends and family. Maybe give up some of your hobbies: say, cancel your regular tennis match with a friend. Perhaps you become secretive about how you spend your time, or choose not to answer when a loved one checks in to ask what you’ve been up to. You can even stop taking care of yourself — eating regularly, prioritizing sleep, showering daily, brushing your teeth, cleaning your room, doing laundry — as much as you used to.
Another pointer: You find that it takes larger and larger doses of your favorite substance to help you feel better—and eventually, you end up feeling worse. “Developing tolerance, needing more of this drug over time to get the same effect, would be a warning sign,” says Dr. Lempke. “[Another] A warning sign might be people looking at not only the way they feel when they use them, but how they feel afterwards. Using, in that moment, seems to ease your depression or anxiety. But how did you feel the next day? Was your mood worse? “
Self-medication can seem like it’s working — but that’s just an “illusion of efficacy,” says Dr. Lembeck. At some point, it will backfire. “A substance that initially relieves anxiety, depression, inattention, insomnia, whatever it may be, will eventually stop working,” she explains. “It turns on them and makes them anxious, makes them unable to sleep, makes them paranoid. By then, they’re addicted. So even though it’s not working and, in fact, making the underlying problem worse, they are now in a state of physiological dependence and [have a risk of] Withdrawal makes it very difficult to quit.”
Self-medication can develop into a full-blown substance use disorder, Dr. Brewer says, which can put you in a difficult situation. “It can cause social problems. It can cause problems with the family. It can cause problems at work,” Dr. Brewer says. On top of that, these can feed into each other. I see a lot of patients with anxiety who are heavy drinkers. Then they wake up in the morning and have a hangover, which makes them even more anxious.”