Self-Medicating Anxiety Symptoms

Explore Everything You Need to Know About Self-Medicating Anxiety Symptoms

Table of Contents

Did you know that the most common mental health disorder in the United States is anxiety? Anxiety affects approximately 40 million adults over the age of eighteen.

That equates to about 18.1 percent of the population. However, and here’s the real kicker, only about 36.9 percent of individuals with anxiety seek treatment.

That leaves 63.1 percent of individuals with anxiety who are not seeking treatment. How do these individuals address their anxiety? Unfortunately, the answer is often that they seek treatment through self-medicating their anxiety.

If you’re struggling with anxiety, keep reading to learn more about anxiety and why you should seek treatment instead of self-medicating.

self-medicating anxiety

What Is Anxiety?

Did you know that in certain situations, anxiety can actually be helpful? Imagine this; you have an upcoming test and you know that a large part of your score will impact your grade.

Because of this, you have some fear and worry that you will not do well. This apprehension or anxiety urges you to spend extra time studying, and on test day, you do well.

In situations such as tests, moving, or new experiences, a certain degree of anxiety is normal. A small amount of anxiety about a situation can even push you to take action and be helpful, like in our example.

However, anxiety can rise to a different level. You may have that feeling of apprehension in situations that do not warrant it. These feelings can become debilitating.

For a mental health diagnosis of anxiety, you must meet certain criteria within the DSM, and depending on the type of anxiety, the symptoms typically need to have been present more often than not for a minimum of six months. To understand anxiety, you must understand that there are many facets to anxiety.

Types of Anxiety

When you look at anxiety, there can be different triggers. Anxiety for one person can look much different than it does for others. There are many different types of anxiety, and even if your diagnosis is the same as another person’s, you may exhibit different symptoms. The types of anxiety listed here are not comprehensive; however, they do cover some of the most common types.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is experienced by 5.7 percent of Americans at some point in their lives. For a diagnosis of GAD, your symptoms must be present for six months or more. Your symptoms must also occur on more days than not. With GAD, your anxiety can revolve around various situations, including work, healthy, interactions, normal daily routines, and more.
These symptoms can often start to impact various areas of your life, including school, work, and social situations.

Panic Disorder

Panic disorder involves the individual experiencing panic attacks. Around 4.7 percent of adults will experience panic disorder at some time in their lives. With panic disorder, your attacks can occur randomly or be brought on by various triggers.
As you can imagine, these attacks can be quite scary. For individuals with panic disorder, more anxiety can get triggered as they worry about when their next attack may occur. One thing you may see is that an individual with panic disorder will attempt to avoid people, places, behaviors, or things that may trigger an attack. This can cause significant problems socially and at work or school.

Phobias

Around 9.1 percent of US adults have some type of specific phobia. Phobias have to do with specific situations or objects. This is a fear that is out of proportion to the actual danger that is presented by the object of your fear. Probably one of the more common phobias people are familiar with is arachnophobia or the fear of spiders. With a phobia, your fear goes beyond screaming and climbing on the couch when you encounter a spider.

Some other examples of phobias include needles, heights, public speaking, flying, enclosed spaces, animals, blood, and more.

Social Anxiety

With social anxiety, your fear or anxiety is present in social situations. Around 12.1 percent of US adults will experience some form of social anxiety during their life. There is a worry that your behavior or actions will get evaluated negatively by others and cause embarrassment.

Individuals with social anxiety tend to avoid social situations.

Social anxiety can be seen in many situations, including school, work, social, and more.

Self-Medicating Anxiety

Unfortunately, of the individuals with anxiety, less than half seek treatment. Many times you will see people turn to substances to deal with their anxiety. This gets referred to as self-medicating.

Why Do People Self-Medicate Anxiety?

The answer to why people self-medicate is not simple. There are a variety of factors at play here.

No Coping Mechanisms

One potential reason could be that the person is aware they have anxiety, but they don’t know how to cope with it. In this situation, they may turn to drugs or alcohol to help calm the symptoms.

Undiagnosed

Another reason is that the person is undiagnosed and uses alcohol or drugs to treat specific symptoms. For example, we saw that during lockdown, the sale of alcohol went up.

Nielsen reported a 54 percent increase in sales of alcohol at the end of March of 2020. Throughout the lockdown, we saw many memes and jokes about the amount Americans were drinking during the lockdown. 

However, many Americans were choosing to drink to calm the anxiety they were feeling regarding the pandemic. Others were drinking to deal with the stress and anxiety that came from an uncertain future of having to homeschool their children.

The act of drinking helped calm some of that anxiety for part of the population. However, this is a form of self-medicating anxiety.

Cost or Availability of Treatment

The cost and availability of treatment are also factors that play into self-medication. If an individual cannot afford or find treatment, they will often turn to self-medication for relief.

Stigma

Even with campaigns that are working to reduce the stigma that surrounds mental health, it still exists.

If you fear what others will think of you, it can be difficult to seek treatment. However, public stigma is not the only type of stigma preventing individuals from seeking treatment.

There is also self-stigma. Self-stigma is the internalized feelings someone has about their own mental health disorder. Internalized feelings of shame can be difficult to overcome.

Inefficient Medications

Maybe in the past, the individual has sought treatment. If they were prescribed medication that did not work, they could turn to self-medication.

This medication didn’t work; however, they can find their own solution.

Side Effects

If you have a fear of the side effects of medication, you may not want to take it. Yes, there are side effects of the substances the individual may choose to use; however, the reason does not need to make sense.

For whatever reason, they are choosing to self-medicate. Self-medication comes with its own risks and dangers.

The Dangers of Self-Medication

There are inherent risks when you choose to self-medicate your anxiety. Some of these risks can follow you throughout the rest of your life.

Self-Diagnosis

If you are self-medicating based on a self-diagnosis, you could be incorrect in your diagnosis. The body is complicated, and there are many factors that can contribute to anxiety.

For example, asthma, sleep apnea, overactive thyroid, gluten sensitivity, and more can all cause feelings of anxiety.

Delay Treatment

When you choose to self-medicate, you are ultimately delaying getting the appropriate treatment. This can cause more symptoms and cause your anxiety to get worse.

Working through anxiety can be difficult. Make sure you are doing it with the right treatment.

Adverse Reactions

There are many reactions you can have to the substance you choose to self-medicate with. These reactions can go as far as an overdose and death.

Drug Interactions

Are you on other medications? There are many drug interactions that doctors are trained to know about.

When you get prescribed a medication for anxiety, the doctor looks at the risks versus the benefits. The doctors also look at potential drug interactions and whether or not it is safe.

Choosing to self-medicate when you do not have knowledge of drug interactions is extremely dangerous.

Masking Severe Diseases

Certain substances you choose to self-medicate with can mask the symptoms of severe diseases. This can delay treatment and put your physical health at risk.

Dependence and Abuse

When you choose to self-medicate, you put yourself at risk of dependence on the substance. This can lead to years of fighting a battle to stay sober. 

Addiction and Anxiety

During the pandemic, concerns about substance abuse and mental disorders such as anxiety and depression have increased. In January of 2021, 41 percent of adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression.

In June of 2020, 13 percent of US adults reported increased or new use of substances to deal with the stress they were experiencing during the lockdown and the pandemic.

There is a strong connection between addiction and anxiety. Individuals with anxiety are more likely to become addicted to a substance that helps them cope with their feelings of fear or anxiety.

However, individuals with addictions are more likely to develop some sort of anxiety as well. With this strong link, self-medication of anxiety simply puts the individual at a higher risk of addiction.

Substances Used to Self-Medicate

The substances used to self-medicate vary greatly. While some may choose to self-medicate with legal substances, others may choose illegal substances.

We’ll list some examples of the substances individuals use to self-medicate.

Alcohol

The use of alcohol is acceptable to the majority of Americans. This makes alcohol one of the common substances used to self-medicate.

In addition, alcohol does what you want it to do. It can relieve symptoms of anxiety. However, when dependence sets in, you can actually see an increase in anxiety.

Opiates

These are drugs that mimic the effects of opium. Some common opiates are codeine, morphine, heroin, hydrocodone, and oxycodone.

Using these drugs can create a euphoric sensation or high. This can help individuals deal with the anxiety they are experiencing.

However, these are dangerous drugs. In 2020, drug overdose deaths from opiates reached a new high, with around 69,710 deaths getting attributed to opiates.

Marijuana

Marijuana is legal in many states now, if only medicinally. However, interestingly enough, while marijuana can help with anxiety, it can also increase anxiety.

Even with the benefits of marijuana, there are still many unknowns. If you want to use marijuana for the treatment of anxiety in a state where it is legal, be sure to discuss it and the appropriate dosage with your doctor first.

Food

Binge eating, comfort eating, emotional eating are all terms you have probably heard. Many people recognize a tendency to self-medicate with food and use food as a comfort.

When it comes to using food, it feels safe. In addition, food can help decrease stress and feelings of anxiety.

However, self-medicating with food can lead to addiction as well. Whether you struggle with eating too much or binge eating, food is addictive.

In addition, it’s unlikely that you are sitting down with a salad to help cope with your feelings of anxiety. When Americans think of comfort food, what comes to mind?

Fried food, pasta, pizza, bread, all foods that are okay in moderation. However, in excess are bad for your health.

You can also go to the other extreme. Maybe within your anxiety, you simply want to find an area of your life that you can control. This can lead to limiting your food consumption at a dangerous level.

It is important to learn to break the emotional ties you have with food and learn how to have a healthy relationship with food.

Treating Anxiety

Prior to treatment, you will receive a diagnosis of anxiety from a mental health professional. For a diagnosis, you will spend time talking to the mental health professional about your symptoms and experiences.

This is referred to as a psychological evaluation. They will then compare your symptoms to the symptoms listed in the DSM. Once a diagnosis has been made, you can begin exploring options for treatment.

Medication

There are a variety of medications that you can use to help with the treatment of anxiety. If your provider decides that medication is the right course of treatment for you, they will take into consideration other conditions you have and potential drug interactions.

At times you may see certain antidepressants prescribed. Some antidepressants are used to help treat anxiety. Some common ones are Zoloft and Prozac.

Your doctor may also choose to prescribe buspirone. This medication is an anti-anxiety medication.

In some circumstances, a doctor can prescribe other medications, including benzodiazepines or beta-blockers for anxiety. However, in this situation, it is for short-term, not long-term use.

Before you start any medication, be sure to talk to your doctor about the risks, benefits, and potential side effects.

Therapy

Even if prescribed medication, therapy is beneficial to individuals with anxiety. In a therapy setting, you will have the opportunity to work with a therapist to learn how to reduce your anxiety symptoms.

Therapy is all about building your toolbox. The tools you put in will help you as you encounter situations that trigger your anxiety.

One of the more effective forms of therapy for anxiety is cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT. CBT is a short-term treatment and works to help you learn skills that improve your symptoms.

As you learn these skills, you are able to engage in activities you may have previously avoided because of your anxiety. One of the components of CBT can be what gets called exposure therapy.

With exposure therapy, you will start to get put into situations that would typically induce anxiety. This is a gradual thing; it allows you to build confidence. With that confidence comes the knowledge that you have the ability to handle the situation that you are afraid of.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness has shown a lot of promise in the treatment of anxiety. With mindfulness, you learn how to be fully present in the moment.

As you are fully present in the moment, you begin to learn how to cope with feelings of anxiety and soften those feelings. You take a non-judgemental attitude and acknowledge your feelings instead of trying to push them down.

Mindfulness works for many individuals; however, it doesn’t work for everyone and does not replace treatment. However, it is very beneficial, and it is worth considering learning how to utilize mindfulness to address your anxiety.

Lifestyle Changes

There are also many lifestyle changes a therapist may recommend to help with your anxiety. These lifestyle changes are great to combine with treatment for anxiety.

Stay Physically Active

Exercise is a great tool to help with anxiety and stress. You should develop a schedule that allows you to be active most days of the week.

Be sure to start slowly and consult a doctor if needed before beginning an exercise routine.

Avoid Alcohol and Recreational Drugs

Utilizing these substances can help in the short term. However, ultimately, self-medicating with these substances will increase your anxiety.

Quit Smoking

This one can be much more difficult. Many individuals believe that smoking actually helps their anxiety. However, nicotine can cause feelings of anxiety and make it worse.

Cut Back or Quit Caffeine

For many, you need your daily dose of caffeine. However, caffeine is another substance that can increase feelings of anxiety.

Consider cutting back the amount of caffeine you are consuming or eliminating it from your diet completely. Still, need that hot drink in the morning?

Consider switching to tea. There are several types of tea that can help with anxiety.

Sleep

Make sure you get enough sleep. A lack of sleep can increase the amount of anxiety you are experiencing.

The struggle then becomes that when you are experiencing anxiety, it can be difficult to sleep. If you are struggling to sleep, talk to your doctor.

Eat Healthily

There are foods that can help you deal with feelings of anxiety. Choosing foods that are healthy like vegetables, fruits, fish, and whole grains is a great choice.

Treating Anxiety and Addiction

If you are struggling with anxiety and addiction, it is important that you seek treatment for both. Dual-diagnosis treatment is a great choice for individuals experiencing addiction and anxiety.

Start Your Treatment Today

Living with anxiety is tough. However, you are not alone. Make sure that you are not self-medicating your anxiety, and seek the appropriate treatment.

Lift Off Recovery wants to build a relationship with you and support you through your treatment. If you need support in your journey, contact us today. We would love to hear from you.