A Doctor’s Note: How Self-Medicating Spirals into Addiction

By Dr. John Larson Corporate Medical Director Gateway Treatment Centers

By Dr. John Larson
Corporate Medical Director
Gateway Treatment Centers

Many individuals stumble into addiction unwittingly by trying to self-medicating, or using a substance to manage the symptoms of an underlying medical or psychiatric problem such as pain, anxiety, or depression.  The substance may be alcohol, an illicit drug, or a prescription medication.  In the beginning there may be short-term relief but as tolerance develops the medication or drug becomes less and less effective.

A common example is social anxiety, or fear of being in large groups, especially when there are lots of strangers.  Alcohol is commonly available and in modest doses it may initially reduce the anxiety providing a sense of relief and even a pleasurable sensation because of the effect it has on brain chemistry.  However, the body metabolizes the alcohol very quickly and it soon loses its effect.  With continued use the chemistry of the brain gradually changes and the feeling of anxiety or nervousness gets worse when alcohol is not present, even when the individual is not in a stressful social situation.  The amount and frequency of use increases and physical dependence develops.  When an individual tries to cut back, the rebound of the original symptoms only intensifies the discomfort experienced during withdrawal, making it very difficult to stop using. A person becomes more and more preoccupied with obtaining and using alcohol or their drug of choice.  This also often occurs with drugs such as Valium and Xanax, sleeping medications, and drugs used to treat acute and chronic pain.

This is often called “self medication.”  Unfortunately many people and even health care professionals are under the mistaken impression that the addiction issues will disappear if the underlying problem is treated: “If I can find some other way of treating my social anxiety my alcohol problem will simply go away.”  This is seldom the case.  When it reaches this point the drug or alcohol use has a life of its own and the individual needs to be specifically evaluated and professionally treated for addiction as well as for the underlying psychiatric or medical problem.  Failure to treat both inevitably results in continued suffering and worsening health complications.

The good news is that through integrated substance abuse treatment, a person can begin to understand how their underlying mental health concerns and substance abuse issues are related, to get them the help they need. To learn more about treatment options for substance abuse issues, or our free, confidential consultation, call Gateway today at 877-505-HOPE (4673).



About Gateway Foundation Alcohol & Drug Treatment Centers
Every year Gateway Foundation Alcohol & Drug Treatment helps thousands of adults and teens get their life back on track and gives renewed hope to those who care about them. With 50 years of treatment experience, our specialists take the time to understand of the specific needs of each individual. We then develop a customized treatment plan with recommendations for the most appropriate care based on an individual's substance abuse and mental health history. As the largest provider of alcohol and drug abuse treatment in Illinois, Gateway has 11 treatment centers throughout the state. Gateway outpatient and residential substance abuse treatment programs are not one-size fits all, but unique treatment plans that give an individual the highest chance for a successful outcome. With insurance acceptance and a track record of success, Gateway Treatment Centers help thousands of individual’s successfully complete treatment each year, and find the hope they need to live again.

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