Everyone knows what it’s like to have anxious moments. In fact, our body’s natural stress response is an invaluable tool we need to respond appropriately in times of crisis or danger. But when it is a near-constant companion – fueled by everyday thoughts or situations that do not warrant a heightened stress response – anxiety can be harmful. In fact, it can hurt so much our minds and bodies become desperate for relief, any relief, as fleeting as it may be. Though there are healthy means of relieving anxiety, such as exercise, meditation and prayer, all too often we choose unhealthy alternatives, self-medicating ourselves into dangerous territory.
In my work at The Center for Counseling and Health Resources, my team and I have witnessed 8 primary means of self-medication for the relief of anxiety. Details of each are outlined below, from my book Overcoming Anxiety, Worry and Fear: Practical Ways to Find Peace:
1) Self-medicating through alcohol. Anxiety can produce a need for relief. When alcohol is chosen as that relief agent, it can be effective in the short term. But the short-term nature of that relief means you must continually use alcohol to maintain that effect. The more alcohol you use, the greater tolerance you develop for its effects. The greater the tolerance, the more alcohol you have to use to achieve the same effect. This is the vicious cycle of alcohol dependence.
2) Self-medicating through illicit drugs. There is a common thread throughout the currently available crop of illicit drugs, such as cocaine, amphetamines, methamphetamines, heroin, ecstasy, crack, and crank. The common thread is increased anxiety associated with using the drug. These drugs do not decrease anxiety; they increase it. Using drugs can produce physical symptoms that mimic a panic attack, such as rapid heart rate, insomnia, increased blood pressure, and feelings of paranoia. This is a drug-induced panic attack that sends your body into overdrive. A body in drug-induced overdrive does not have the ability to slow down on its own.
3) Self-medicating through prescription drugs. When used properly, in conjunction with a reputable physician, prescription drugs can be a true blessing. They should, however, be approached extremely carefully. It can be so easy to use daily instead of as needed. It can be so easy to look for another doctor to get another prescription. It can be so easy to neglect informing one doctor of what another has prescribed. This is the danger of using prescription drugs to self-medicate. When you become your own doctor, determining your own usage and your own combinations, you enter a highly dangerous arena.
4) Self-medicating through nicotine. Nicotine, delivered to the brain, can have a calming effect. Just the relief from nicotine deprivation can be soothing. But the very symptoms you are smoking to alleviate can be triggered by smoking. Smoke to relieve anxiety and you could end up experiencing more. Smoke to relieve anxiety for a time and then decide to quit and increased anxiety is a virtual guarantee. Withdrawal from nicotine increases anxiety. It’s the same with all these self-medicating behaviors – a short-term fix produces a long-term complication.
5) Self-medicating through food. Anxiety can lead to food as medication. Food as medication can lead to overdosing on food. Overdosing on food can lead to obesity and health problems. Obesity and health problems can lead to increased anxiety. And round and round it goes. Just because food is legal and virtually on every corner, don’t be fooled. It can be just as addictive for self-medicating as any drug.
6) Self-medicating through anger. Both anxiety and anger produce and use adrenaline. When that adrenaline is routed from anxiety to anger, the anxiety takes second position. Anger becomes predominant. Anxiety may have started off as the primary response to a given situation, but anger can quickly land in the driver’s seat. Anxiety may have produced the adrenaline, but it can be hijacked and used by anger. Anxiety leaves you feeling out of control and vulnerable. Anger makes you feel powerful. Compared to each other, anger can appear the clear winner.
7) Self-medicating through self-harming. This is a way to use physical pain to cover over psychic pain. It’s a way to feel cleansed of internal distress through the physical external release of wounding. Self-harming behaviors include making small, superficial cuts, burning, scratching, picking at scabs, hair pulling, and banging or hitting body parts. The physical pain is used as a relief and release from anxiety. It is using a lesser, more easily understandable physical pain to soothe a greater, more complex, indiscernible psychic pain. Self-harm puts yourself on an altar of sacrifice in an attempt to appease intense feelings of stress and worry.
8) Self-medicating through holding on to stuff. Hoarders are emotionally attached to items, and discarding even one is like ripping off a part of their body; it is painful. They are terrified of losing the comfort they have so painstakingly imbued into each thing. Discarding has the ring of finality – a no-exit decision they’d rather put off indefinitely. It feels safer to keep control of these things, even if it means losing control of their lives.
Whatever the chosen mode of self-medication, the reality is the same – a false sense of control. The unhealthy behaviors we adapt to control our anxiety end up controlling us and, in fact, producing increased anxiety in the process.
If you engage in one or more self-medicating behaviors, it’s time to ask yourself: How would you feel giving it up, and how would you feel once you’re free?