When you are experiencing emotional pain or coping with troubling symptoms of mental or physical illness, it can be tempting to try to numb these signals.

You might drink alcohol, use illegal drugs, or use drugs that are legal, but taken improperly to achieve a desired effect. You might even binge on unhealthy food as a way to comfort yourself, or smoke cigarettes as a means to soothe anxiety or deal with stress. This is known as self-medicating, and can lead to serious substance abuse.

Alcohol, prescribed drugs, illicit drugs, cigarettes, or marijuana are the most commonly abused substances.

For people with mental illness, it’s particularly serious:

  • People with serious mental illness or substance use disorder account for about 25% of the adult population, yet consume 40% of cigarettes that are sold in the United States.
  • As many as 70-85% of people with schizophrenia, and as many as 50-70% of people with bipolar disorder smoke cigarettes.

Using Substances to Change How You Feel

Let’s be honest—these coping habits are not healthy. But maybe they have enabled you to momentarily lessen the pain of things that are tough to face head-on. It’s time to break the cycle, better understand your body, and feel better long-term. Not just for a few fleeting moments.

Self-medicating as a quick fix for emotions or other symptoms is simply that: a quick fix. You may feel better in the short term, but negative coping strategies such as drinking or smoking, do not provide long-term relief from symptoms. Instead, substance abuse interferes with proven methods of treatment, and leads to long-term health problems with significantly worse mental and physical outcomes.

Risks and Effects of Self-Medicating

Self-medicating is not without risk. The most significant danger of self-medicating, with any drug, is overdosing. More than 96,000 people died from drug overdoses between March 2020 and March 2021. There is additional danger in how multiple substances interact in the body, including with prescribed medications and alcohol.

Overdose deaths

Failing to treat the underlying physical or psychological need, and instead using substances that lead to abuse and dependency, puts you at serious risk in many other ways:

  • As these substances circulate throughout the body, they cause damage to the brain, heart, lungs, liver, and other body systems. Immediate effects can include spiking blood pressure, stroke, and psychosis.
  • Substance abuse can lead to appetite disruption, depriving the body of nutrients. Without adequate power to function or heal, formerly healthy body systems break down.
  • Long-term substance abuse can result in cancer, heart and lung disease, and dramatically worsened mental illness.

Neglecting to seek help for physical or mental symptoms could also mean that you’re not fully aware of what needs to be addressed. Or it could mean that you’ve used self-medication as a way of coping for so long, you simply overlook the symptoms. But if you think that your tendency to self-medicate has worsened, and you’re ready to find more effective ways to manage symptoms, seek medical advice on how to begin. Sudden withdrawal can sometimes have serious medical complications, such as seizures or severe high blood pressure. Take the first step by calling your doctor.

You Have Options

There is hope. Everyone is capable of recovery. Treatments are available to stabilize your mood and sleep, improve your mental health, and to help you find whole wellness that can release you from the grip of substance abuse.

There are also many healthy ways you can address cravings, enhance your resilience, and create success for yourself—including through nutrition, alternative coping skills, and targeted fitness activities.

You just have to take that first step.

Self-Medicating: Self-Check

No pressure — there are no right or wrong answers. This is just information to get you on the right track for your health goals.

  1. Self-medicating means that I am using my own ways to cope. Am I using unhealthy substances to feel better?
    From the time we are born and learn how to navigate this world, we learn behaviors that help us to survive.
    If you answered Yes, then exchanging unhealthy self-medicating behaviors for habits that protect and improve your health is a goal you can accomplish.
    If you answered No, continue to seek out healthy lifestyle choices and add some new ways to manage symptoms.
  2. When I am feeling bad, stressed, or in pain, the first thing I think of is...
    People use food, smoking, alcohol, or drugs instead of seeking help to treat their symptoms. Yet thinking about self-medication and acting on it are two different things. Talk to your doctor and have a plan to address temptation and cravings.
  3. The closer I am to understanding and listening to myself, the less prone I am to self-medicate with substances. True or False?
    Answer: True. Fully understanding your own behaviors and motivations takes work. But you can do it, and you’re not alone.
  4. Now that I know that I can be in control of my choices and health, I will be kind to myself. True or False?
    Answer: True. We hope you will embrace self-compassion in your journey to better health. Information is power, so if you know better, then you can do better. If you answered "False," NAMI is here to help and share information and resources to help you reach your recovery goals.