How Self-Medication Affects Anxiety Recovery

self-medicationSelf-medication is when a person uses a substance to attempt to control feelings of anxiety, without the guidance of a professional.

To be clear, this post is not discussing prescription medication issued and monitored by a licensed professional.  This post is specific to substances taken without the consent or guidance of a licensed professional.

Substances used for self-medication can be any number of things.  By far the most popular used substance that I have encountered is alcohol.  But I have seen so many other types of substances from illegal narcotics, illegally used prescription medications, over the counter medications, and even food to some extent.

A quick explanation is that self-medication is the act of avoidance.  By taking a substance that numbs our feelings of anxiety, we are avoiding having to deal with those feelings for a period of time.

The problem is that avoidance leads to greater suffering with anxiety.  So the perceived relief that one receives temporarily, only causes more anxiety in the future.  Self-medication does not work in the short term or long term.

There is a lot of science being compiled about the chemistry behind all this.  I will not attempt to explain the science.  Rather, I will just look at the behavior component of recovery and how avoidance of any kind fuels our anxiety.

First, let’s remember that anxiety is our self-defense system.  It assesses danger and alters our behavior in an attempt to save ourselves in a real life dangerous situation.  The “fight or flight” mechanism is used to elicit a response from us.

So if we are experiencing higher levels of anxiety and we avoid these feelings by numbing ourselves in some way, the subconscious message we tell ourselves is that we cannot handle the danger.  We surrender to the warning that our self-defense system is sending.  This reinforces the original warning of danger.  This tells our self-defense system that it was correct, and the system responds by becoming more sensitized to the initial trigger.  Therefore, the next time we are exposed to the trigger, we will likely experience a stronger response, resulting in higher anxiety levels.

Keep in mind that our self-defense system (anxiety) is extremely efficient.  Without anxiety, we would never have evolved into what we are today.  Our anxiety has allowed us to make it through the history of the world by assessing danger and helping us escape becoming extinct.  We cannot fool or trick our anxiety.  Our anxiety is a key component in what makes us who we are.

The foundation of recovery is built upon confidence in ourselves.  When we are suffering from anxiety, we have no confidence in ourselves to handle a specific situation.  There is always a level of insecurity in our suffering.  When we become sensitized to a trigger, its associated with the idea that we cannot handle it.  We do not trust ourselves to handle the situation.  So for the social phobic, they feel insecure when confronting another person.  For the bridge phobic, they feel insecure being on a bridge.  We need confidence that we can approach our trigger situation and we will be able to handle it.

To help the confidence we need to feel empowered (use mental & physical tools).  When we avoid our anxious feelings we are acting like a victim.  The anxiety victimizes us and we cater to it.  Empowerment allows us to stop being a victim and instantly turns the tables.  No more will anxiety control us, we will no longer cater to our anxiety and we instantly are able to help ourselves.  We are no longer helpless and hopeless.  We are a capable human being able to live life the way that we choose, and not according to our fear.

This is recovery.

Self-medication prevents this from happening.  In addition to avoidance, self-medication removes the responsibility away from ourselves and gives it to something outside of ourselves.  The responsibility of our life is literally given to a substance.  We admit defeat, hand over the responsibility to a substance, and basically give up; all the while reinforcing our suffering.

Over the years I have met many people who had become alcoholics because of their anxiety disorder.  So many of their stories shared very similar experiences.  Many of these people would have a rough day, so they would get home and have a drink to help them relax.  Soon it became a daily habit.  Then it becomes necessary to get to sleep at night.  It spills over into being needed to help manage any stressful situation.  Before long, they became fully dependent on alcohol to get through the day in some capacity.

I cannot overemphasize the frequency that the above chain of events has happened.  I did not realize how common this was until I worked at the treatment center.  When I started seeing person after person walking in battling alcoholism and anxiety disorders, it was surprising to me just how widespread this is.

I share this with you simply to be aware of your behavior.  Anxiety disorders are difficult enough on their own, we do not need to add substance dependency on top of it.

Self-care is something I speak of often.  It is extremely beneficial in creating recovery.  We are not caring for ourselves if we are polluting our bodies with harmful substances.

Our suffering from anxiety disorders may manifest in many ways.  Our suffering can take many turns.  Our behavior typically becomes reactive in a response to fear.  Our lives are affected by every decision we make.

Keep your recovery and your emotional health a priority in your life.

Never give up!  Persistence!

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