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3 Reasons People Are Self-Medicating with Alcohol

For individuals over the age of 21, alcohol is an easily accessible and legal substance. In many instances, individuals will and may casually enjoy a beer or glass of wine at social gatherings or events. In some cases, however, individuals use this readily available substance as a means to self-medicate in lieu of seeking professional help for their problems.

The Mayo Clinic describes that one drink is considered:

  • One 12-ounce beer
  • One 8-9 ounce serving of malt liquor
  • One 5 ounce serving of wine
  • One 1.5 ounce serving of hard liquor such as vodka, whiskey, or rum.

Effects of Alcohol

Alcohol is a commonly used substance in the U.S. with nearly 140 million Americans reporting regular or occasional use. The effects of alcohol can be mild, moderate or severe depending on the level of consumption within a given timeframe. Individuals who regularly or occasionally consume alcohol report feelings of relaxation, enjoyment, and even euphoria when high levels of alcohol have been consumed.

The effects of alcohol are most often considered the reason behind individuals desire to use the substance for self-medicating purposes. Many individuals believe that alcohol use helps them to deal with their emotional, mental, and in some cases physical problems or ailments that they experience. However, typically alcohol only serves as a reprieve for the individual as it impairs cognitive functions which are used in rationally dealing with these issues.

Many individuals believe that their use of alcohol will not affect their physical health. However, the effects of alcohol can be experienced with even one binge. Some aspects of health which are affected by alcohol use include liver damage, heart damage, digestive issues, and a weakened immune system.

Similarly, alcohol use, particularly when the individual consumes heavily and regularly, can lead to in the ability to have and maintain social relationships.

Some individuals experience extreme rage, violent behavior, or depression when they are under the influence of alcohol. As consumption increases, the need or desire for alcohol also increases, which can lead to the individual becoming consumed by this desire, placing gratification above all other relationships and responsibilities.

Types of problems which alcohol is used in self-medication

Psychological issues – In many instances, individuals will begin drinking to ‘feel better’ or ‘take the edge off.’ These responses indicate that there is a mood issue, such as anxiety or depression, which the individual feels the need to alter or change. Alcohol is often used by individuals to alleviate feelings of a poor mood. However, the psychological effects of alcohol are short-lived and often lead to a worse mood experience when the individual has sobered up. In some cases, this prompts the individual to begin drinking again to ‘feel better.’ This cycle is a classic example of how self-medicating with alcohol for the purposes of alleviating moods opens the gateway for individuals to develop Alcohol Use Disorder.

Trauma – When individuals experience traumatic events, such as death, tragic accidents or abuse, the experience often haunts the individual leaving them with the inability to cope appropriately. Many individuals who have experienced trauma have difficulty sleeping or experience nightmares which result in the individual reliving the experience each time they go to sleep. Alcohol is commonly used by individuals who have experienced trauma as a means to forget the event or aide them in sleeping without nightmares. But alcohol use in this form of self-medication, like other events, typically leads to a worse experience once the effects of alcohol have diminished.

Stress – One of the most commonly reported reasons for alcohol use is that the individual seeks to relax or alleviate stress. Many individuals feel an extreme amount of pressure and stress to be successful, have a happy home life, and a fulfilled social status. These factors, especially when combined with stressful work life, can contribute to the individual believing that he or she does not have a means to unwind and decompress without resorting to alcohol use.

There are additional reasons that individuals may seek alcohol to get away from their issues such as conflict which arises or reducing fear. But it is important to note that alcohol consumption as a means of self-medication is not a lasting solution and usually results in the individual creating a cycle of abuse that only furthers their problems.

What to do if you or someone you know is self-medicating with alcohol?

Realizing that there is a dependency on alcohol is often difficult for many people. Social situations and lifestyle preferences may lead you to believe that you have your drinking under control or that it is not a problem for you to stop. In many instances, individuals do not recognize that there is a problem.

Individuals may not be aware of the amount of alcohol they consume or the frequency to which they are consuming alcohol. Interventions are a commonly used means to help someone understand that they are experiencing issues with alcohol.

  • Some of the common signs of self-medicating with alcohol include:
  • Feeling a need to drink when life becomes stressful
  • Feeling a need to have a drink every day after work
  • Feeling a need to drink when you are experiencing emotional duress
  • Feeling a need to drink when you are not feeling happy
  • Feeling a need to drink when conflict arises

If you or someone you love is using alcohol to self-medicate, it is important to seek the professional assistance of a psychologist, psychiatrist or medical doctor as soon as possible. In many cases, psychologists and psychiatrists can aid you in determining the factors which contribute to the need for self-medication. They can offer treatment options such as alcohol awareness programs and medications to help address the alcohol use itself. Also, counseling and other psychological treatment options can provide the individual with coping skills, and in some cases medications, which provide relief for the triggers for the need to self-medicate. A medical doctor may need to be consulted for alcohol withdrawal symptoms if the individual has been drinking heavily for a prolonged period of time. In any instance of self-medicating with alcohol, it is important to remember there are tools and resources available to help you overcome this problem.

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Angela Sartain, PhD Psychology
Angela Sartain, PhD Psychology

Angela is currently finishing up her doctoral degree program in General Psychology. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her family, reading, and crafting crochet dolls for her small business.

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