Self-Medicating: What Is It?


  • Self-medicating is the use of unprescribed drugs or activities for medical treatment
  • Self-medicating can involve drugs like marijuana and alcohol or habits such as gambling and binge-eating
  • Self-medicating is often a sign of undiagnosed symptoms or conditions
  • Professional treatment should be sought when self-medicating is identified – Have you ever heard someone refer to their drug habit as ‘self-medicating’? Well, it certainly sounds better than having an addiction.

Before passing any judgment on this topic, it’s important to note that health experts are fully aware of the phenomenon known as self-medicating. In fact, it seems to be more common than most might think.

What is Self-medicating?

Self-medicating is defined as the use of unprescribed drugs for the treatment of medical symptoms or conditions.

While this could involve pretty much any drug, it is most commonly associated with the use of recreational substances like alcohol and marijuana. Self-medicating can also take the form of addictive habits such as gambling and binge-eating.

The most important thing to realize is that individuals who self-medicate are usually unaware of any underlying cause. This isn’t really a surprise, since most people tend to consult with a doctor when they notice an issue regarding their health.


Although patients and doctors do quite fine in identifying more obvious conditions, there are a number of disorders that remain well hidden among the general public. For instance, depression and anxiety disorders affect a significant portion of the population yet frequently go unrecognized.

ADHD is another surprisingly common mental condition that is only diagnosed in a minor portion of sufferers. ADHD is suspected to affect about 5% of the adult population and is closely linked with symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Self-medicating is also common among people who suffer from traumatic events, which can often lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. Children who experience trauma are particularly at risk of self-medicating as they grow older – according to The Adverse Childhood Experiences study (1998), which found multiple associations between severe childhood stress and all types of addictions, ranging from alcohol to overeating.

Overall, substance abuse seems to be directly linked with mental disorders, especially for those who start young. Studies show that up to 85% of adolescents with a substance abuse problem suffer from an underlying mental condition.

Self-medicating vs. Addiction

Research on self-medicating seems to suggest that drugs themselves may not be all of what causes an addiction. In fact, a number of illicit drugs have been found to possess medical properties, implying that ‘drug addicts’ may be just another form of medical patients.

ritalin-cocaineCocaine is one of the most commonly used illicit substances and can have a devastating impact on regular users. Interestingly, cocaine is nearly identical in structure to stimulant medications that are widely prescribed for ADHD. Both drugs act to increase levels of dopamine in the brain, whereas low dopamine levels are suspected to be the root cause of ADHD.
Cigarettes are another highly addictive drug, containing nicotine as the active chemical. Nicotine is also known to increase dopamine levels, which might explain why some users are particularly susceptible to addiction.

Today, marijuana is the most commonly used illegal drug around the world. However, marijuana is also the least addictive of common substances – only 1 in 10 users will ever develop an addiction. While marijuana may be the most common illegal substance, it also happens to have the most medical potential. Indeed, research has found marijuana to possess numerous medical applications, ranging from symptoms of chronic pain to anxiety and depression disorders.

Can Self-medicating Help?

The question remains of whether self-medicating is good for your health. The obvious answer is no. However, the positive aspect of this behavior is that it provides doctors and patients with the opportunity of identifying undiagnosed conditions.

It is more than likely for you or someone you know to be self-medicating with substances or indulgent habits. In these instances, a visit to the doctor’s office could relieve someone of years of suffering from an undiagnosed disorder.

Keep in mind, self-medicating should never be chosen over professional treatment for those who have the option.

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