woman self-medicating stress with alcohol use

Self-medicating for stress can come in many different forms, including self-care techniques, impulsive decisions, or the use of drugs and alcohol. While it might seem harmless in the beginning, over time, self-medicating can heighten stress levels, exacerbate mental health problems, and lead to drug or alcohol addiction.

What is Self-Medicating, and Why Do People Do It?

Self-medication is a maladaptive practice when someone uses drugs, alcohol, or toxic, risky behaviors to cope with the physical or emotional pain they’re experiencing. The act of self-medicating is not done under medical supervision, as many misuse prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, alcohol, and illegal drugs or partake in addictive activities like eating or shopping. When experiencing discomfort or pain, whether it’s from emotional distress, mental health disorders, physical pain, or stress, self-medicating can often exacerbate existing mental health issues and substance abuse.

People typically turn to self-medication because of the accessibility and convenience of these substances or particular behaviors. Substances like alcohol or drugs provide immediate relief for individuals feeling stressed or experiencing muscle aches and pain. Many individuals resort to self-medicating because it’s more convenient than seeking professional help from a healthcare professional. The stigma associated with mental health issues and disorders often prevents people from seeking proper treatment and mental health care. Self-medicating mental health problems at home eliminates the potential shame or embarrassment someone might feel when seeking help.

stressed woman struggling with mental health issues and substance abuse

The high costs of mental health treatment and healthcare services can be a significant deterrent, leading to self-medication being a more affordable and instant alternative. Social norms surrounding substance use to cope with stress or other mental health issues have become widely accepted and encouraged. It’s a toxic and destructive coping mechanism that may relieve symptoms temporarily, often exacerbating them in the long run.

The Dangers of Self-Medicating with Substances for Mental Health Issues

While there are many holistic practices and healthy coping mechanisms for managing stress and other mental health problems, the use of substances is, unfortunately, the most common. When someone is dealing with chronic stress, they often turn to alcohol or drugs for temporary relief or relaxation. This form of stress relief can create a toxic pattern of substance use, developing into an addiction and substance use disorder (SUD).

Substance Dependence and Addiction

One of the most dangerous risks of self-medicating with drugs and alcohol is the potential of becoming dependent on or addicted to the substance. Some of the most common substances people misuse and self-medicate with are alcohol, prescription drugs like opioids or benzodiazepines, or other illicit substances like marijuana.

Depending on alcohol or drugs for relief can quickly develop into a substance use disorder (SUD). When a drug or alcohol addiction coexists with a mental illness such as depression or an anxiety disorder, this is known as a dual diagnosis or a co-occurring disorder. Substance abuse and addictions increase the risk of drug overdose, alcohol poisoning, and overdose deaths.

Exacerbating Mental Health Issues

Studies show that most Americans experience high levels of stress and report feeling burdened by it. Many individuals resort to an alcoholic beverage or substance to relieve stress, whether it’s related to work or family issues. While not everyone who uses substances to self-medicate also struggles with a mental health disorder, these substances can evoke feelings of anxiety and depression over time. Using alcohol or drugs to relieve stress can, in turn, exacerbate existing mental health symptoms or lead to emotional distress and poor mental health.

stressed out businessman wanting to self medicate for stress

Physical Side Effects and Health Complications

Regularly self-medicating with drugs and alcohol can lead to substance abuse, contributing to further health complications and risks. The side effects and health risks associated with substance abuse can range from heart disease, liver damage and disease, and cancer to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), anxiety disorders, and mood disorders.

Excessive use of alcohol or drugs when self-medicating can further contribute to the onset of these conditions or exacerbate existing health issues and symptoms. Patterns of substance abuse can potentially lead to drug or alcohol poisoning, life-threatening health conditions, and lethal overdose.

Impaired Cognitive Function and Risky Behaviors

Alcohol consumption and drug use significantly impair cognitive function, altering perception and judgment. Cognitive impairments from substance use can lead to unusual and risky behaviors or decision-making. When someone is drinking alcohol or taking drugs to relieve stress, they might experience a heightened lack of awareness while under the influence. The effects of psychotropic substances or other drugs that influence cognition can lead someone to do or say things they wouldn’t normally do.

Clouded judgment might lead to unsafe sex, impulsive decisions, drunk driving, or illegal activities. This can evoke not only personal health consequences but can also impact the people and environment around you. Cognitive impairments can provoke relationship issues, putting others in danger and legal consequences.

Social Impact and Relationship Issues

Using drugs and alcohol as a “stress reliever” can quickly become a part of your routine, developing into a severe dependence or addiction. The effects of substance abuse can affect your mood, behaviors, and decisions that you make. This constant need to drink or use as a means to self-medicate can eventually strain personal and professional relationships. Friends and family members might become fed up with your drinking or drug problem, leading to arguments, disagreements, and separation.

Substance use disorders (SUDs) can affect work performance and efficacy, potentially accelerating job loss and financial difficulties. Strained relationships and social life lead to isolation and loneliness, heightening stress levels and mental health problems. This cycle of self-medicating with substances to relieve stress only to increase emotional distress temporarily is contributing to the prevalence of drug addictions and alcoholism.

man practicing stress reduction techniques for managing stress levels, health self-medication and coping techniques

Seeking Professional Help and Treatment for Co-Occurring Disorders

When struggling with drug or alcohol abuse as a form of self-medication, finding healthy coping strategies to manage stress levels is critical for reducing the risk of addiction and overdose. Seeking professional mental health care and addiction treatment is recommended when struggling with substance use and mental health disorders. Healthy coping strategies for stress reduction can include mindfulness practices, exercise, self-care techniques, and meditation.

When dealing with mental health issues and substance abuse, dual diagnosis treatment is best suited to address both conditions effectively. Coastal Detox offers dual diagnosis treatment in Stuart, FL, for individuals struggling with co-occurring disorders.

We want you to get the treatment you deserve! Reach out today to contact one of our addiction specialists and mental health professionals.


  • National Library of Medicine, 2005. Self-Medication of Mental Health Problems: New Evidence from a National Survey.
  • National Library of Medicine, 2009. Chronic Stress, Drug Use, and Vulnerability to Addiction.
  • American Psychological Association, 2023. Stress in America 2023: A nation recovering from collective trauma.
  • PubMed, 2015. A review on alcohol: from the central action mechanism to chemical dependency.
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2020. Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction.
  • National Library of Medicine, 2020. Cognitive Impairment in Substance Use Disorders.