Self-Medication or Addiction
Many of us are confronted with moments in our lives when we have to adapt to some challenge. Have you ever wondered why the problems that plague some of us don’t seem to bother others, even remotely? For example, while some of us may become frustrated in traffic on our way to work, others remain calm and relaxed. When confronted with stress in the workplace, some of us are energized and hit the gym afterward, while others, having a similar experience, look forward to ending the workday by relaxing with family or friends.
The way each of us copes with stress and adapts to it can differ considerably depending on how we learned to cope in our family of origin, and this coping can come in many forms. One common form of coping is the use of alcohol and other mood altering substances as a means of escaping the discomfort and pain of internal pressures. When this kind of coping becomes habitual or reflexive, we can unconsciously slide into self-medication—and overuse of a substance or some activity to manage ongoing emotional distress.
An example of this might be when having a cocktail with coworkers after a stressful day at the office begins to lead to a few glasses of wine with dinner. Another might be binge eating ice cream after a tough breakup. It’s important to recognize that self-medication isn’t just limited to food, drink or other substances. It can also be associated with exercise, sex or overspending, just to name a few. So, how do we know when coping that has become habitual self-medication has turned the corner and become an addiction?
Basically, self-medication means that a person is using a substance or activity—what is often referred to as his or her “drug of choice”, even when it’s not an actual drug—to alter the experience of painful thoughts, feelings or emotions brought on by stress or trauma. The reason for doing this is to bring us a feeling of comfort. When these activities become a necessity, rather than a conscious choice, what was self-medication becomes more of a compulsive dependence, which can lead to addiction.
When Self-medication Turns the Corner
Compulsive dependence, or addiction, is best described as habitually engaging in an activity as a means for coping with some stress or intense emotion, then feeling anxious, unsettled or even ill when that can’t happen. When self-medication takes the place of a healthy processing of emotion or response to stress, it may be time to take a closer look at what’s happening in your emotional world and reach out for support. One thing to remember is not to give yourself a hard time or be critical of yourself for reaching for a substance as being self critical leads to stress which creates the need to reach for the substance which continues the unhealthy cycle. We need to bring a deep understanding and compassion to what we are doing in order to stop this cycle.
One way of interrupting the unhealthy cycle is to bring support and love to the feelings of stress or pain in a conscious way instead of unconsciously reaching for the “pain killer”. You may need to see a counselor to help guide you with this as we cannot do everything alone all the time. Reaching for support is a healthy loving thing to do for yourself.
We invite you to call our office for a free 15-minute phone consultation at 860-258-4171. We’re happy to discuss your specific needs and to answer any questions you have about addiction counseling and our practice.