If addiction researchers could determine why people turn to drugs and alcohol, it would be easier to get to the root of the problem and prevent the heartbreak and loss of life associated with addiction. Unfortunately, life is never that simple. People are complex beings and there are no easy explanations or one-size-fits-all answers. There’s little doubt, however, that many people use drugs, alcohol, or destructive behavior such as gambling, binge eating or pornography, to “self-medicate” in an attempt to make themselves feel better.
Self-medicating is often connected to PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), resulting from trauma that occurs in childhood and continues to fester well into adult life. People who experienced neglect or abuse, those who lost a parent to death or divorce or grew up with a parent struggling with mental or physical illness may use drugs or alcohol to diminish sadness, rage, powerlessness, hopelessness and even depression or insomnia and many other issues associated with the childhood trauma.
Not all people who self-medicate suffered trauma as children, but trauma experienced as an adult is no less serious. Military personnel who are exposed to combat, victims of emotional, physical or sexual assault, a frightening medical diagnosis or being threatened with a deadly weapon can all result in PTSD, as can experiencing or witnessing torture, accidents, natural disasters, fires, robberies, or other life-threatening occurrences. Longstanding emotional or narcissistic abuse, especially through a spouse is also often the cause of PTSD, a fact, often overlooked or not taken seriously.
People also self-medicate to relieve the symptoms of undiagnosed mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, ADHD or bi-polar disorder. For example, people may use cocaine to combat depression, or they may turn to alcohol to cope with symptoms of generalized or social anxiety.
Unfortunately, self-medicating, for whatever reason, often helps in the short term and continuous use of the substance of choice to achieve the same effect makes matters worse over time. Using substances only relieves bad feelings for a short time. Eventually, people become tolerant to the substance (or behavior), and more is needed to attain the same result, which creates a dangerous cycle into addiction.
Addiction complicates everything. For example, people who become addicted after self-medicating depression with alcohol tend to become more anxious and depressed as addiction affects every aspect of life, including careers, relationships and health. As substance abuse intensifies, risk of suicide becomes a very real danger. Addiction can also mask symptoms of mental illness, which complicates diagnosis and treatment. Addiction also has considerable effects on physical health, such as influencing blood pressure, heart health, sleep and appetite.
If you or someone you care about is turning to drugs, alcohol or destructive behavior in order to numb their emotions or cope with personal problems, it’s important to seek treatment as soon as possible. Don’t wait, as the problem will only get worse. Skilled addiction professionals understand how to help people who struggle with addiction, trauma and mental health issues in a safe, supportive and empathic environment.