self medicating to deal with stress

What is Self Medicating and Why is It so Dangerous?

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Young Adulthood is a pivotal time in one’s life. Your child is likely seeing his or her peers going off to college, doing internships, getting great jobs, getting engaged, or getting married. The pressures to keep up can be overwhelming for some young adults, as everyone goes through life at their own speed. Along with these societal pressures come the everyday stressors of life.

The transition into adulthood is a time when many individuals start experimenting. Some young adults will experiment with a change in appearance- getting a tattoo, piercing or dyeing their hair, while others will experiment with a new hobby, sport, or peer group. But what about when young adults start “experimenting” with drugs or alcohol? While some experimentation can be viewed as “normal,” and is to be expected, when young adults start using or abusing substances as an unhealthy coping mechanism, this crosses the line into self-medication. Many parents of young adults are unsure of what is self-medicating and what is experimentation.

The reason self-medication is so dangerous is that it is often to cover up an underlying conflict or mental health issue in many individuals. This article will address the question of “What is self-medicating?” It will also discuss the reasoning behind self-medication and uncover the alarming trends of substance use and abuse among young adults.

What is Self-Medicating?

When someone begins the act of medicating themselves, they don’t always know that they are medicating an issue. They just know that they either want to leave behind a negative feeling or feel a different emotion than they are currently in.

Self-medicating is the act of using a substance, whether it be prescribed drugs, illegal drugs, or alcohol to manage troublesome symptoms of a physical or mental health disorder. Self-medication can be drinking alcohol every time you start to feel stressed, using marijuana to calm your nerves or fall asleep every night, taking an “upper” drug to elicit some version of a happy feeling, or abusing ADHD medication to study for college.

Is Self-Medication Bad?

Self-medication can feel harmless when the user begins caring for stressful feelings with substances. It often begins in an innocent way such as “living the college experience” or an intentional attempt to ease painful symptoms of anxiety. However, additional problems can arise when substances are used illegally or without proper medical guidance. The American Addiction Center says, “… over time, self-medicating can complicate the management of mental health issues and can contribute to the development of a substance use disorder. Cocaine use, for example, has been associated with an exacerbation of symptoms and worsened progression of bipolar disorder.”

TRENDING: Screen Time, Education, And Cannabis Use In Young People

Self-medication can also hide the reality of a mental health issue such as anxiety and prevent learning how to successfully manage the condition. Self-medicating to deal with stress doesn’t resolve the stress or teach coping skills; it simply masks the negative feelings for a short period of time. Self-medication is not a resolution but a temporary and false reprieve that allows a mental health issue to be ignored.

Is self-medicating the same as addiction?

Self-medicating is not the same as addiction. That is not to say that the situation of self-medication could not escalate into an addiction. This is why early intervention is vital to address self-medication before it turns into an addiction. Keeping an eye out for early signs of substance abuse and self-medication is especially important if your family has a history of alcoholism or drug addiction, as there are individuals who are genetically predisposed to addiction. While young adults with addictions to drugs or alcohol have a physical and/or psychological dependency on a substance, young adults who self-medicate may abuse substances for a different reason.

Why Do Young Adults Self-Medicate?

Young adults use and abuse a variety of substances for a variety of different reasons. Some start out simply using alcohol as a “social lubricant,” marijuana to relax, or ADHD medication to stay awake for a night of studying (or partying.) These may seem like relatively harmless habits or normal parts of college partying to many young adults. In fact, many individuals see that their peers are drinking, smoking pot, or popping pills, and they’re doing just fine in school/life. It is when young adults start using substances to cope with stress, anxiety, social situations, or an unresolved mental health issue that “partying” turns into self-medicating.

Some young adults have a hard time accepting the reality that even though they see a number of their peers partying, that they can’t, due to a natural disposition to depression, anxiety, unresolved trauma, ADHD, low self-esteem, etc.

Self-medicating to deal with stress is a dangerous road. If your young adult doesn’t learn healthy techniques to deal with stress, anxiety, or depression, their go-to solution will continue to be substances and will only escalate. Stress and other mental health conditions need to be dealt with at their core with the guidance of a professional.  At that time, techniques can be instilled and used for lifelong success as they deal with their mental health conditions. Any substances used, such as prescribed medications, should be done with the guidance of a medical professional.

What Substances Are Young Adults Using/Abusing?

It is important to understand that self-medication is substance abuse.  Those who seek the help of drugs or alcohol to alleviate the symptoms of their mental health disorder are using the substances inappropriately. College students and other young adults binge drinking or smoking pot isn’t a huge surprise to many parents. While these are still two common substances for young adults who self-medicate, there are other culprits, likely to be right in your medicine cabinet. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “young adults (age 18 to 25) are the biggest abusers of prescription opioid pain relievers, ADHD stimulants, and anti-anxiety drugs.” This is an alarming trend that takes the lives of thousands of young people each year. If you suspect that your child is self-medicating, it is vital to keep any prescription medications under lock and key.

Another alarming trend among young adults is using/abusing over-the-counter medications, especially cold medicines containing the active ingredient dextromethorphan, such as Robitussin and Nyquil. Teens and young adults often refer to the high as “robo-tripping” due to the hallucinogenic effects. If you suspect your child is self-medicating, make sure to be careful about over-the-counter purchases as well.

3 Things A Parent Can Do If They Suspect Self-Medication In Their Young Adult

Educate Yourself On Signs of Drug Abuse

Depending on the drug used, symptoms may vary, but here are general signs of drug abuse:

  • Neglecting responsibilities (calling out of/missing work, failing/skipping classes, etc.) due to substance abuse
  • Bloodshot eyes, larger or smaller pupils
  • Extreme neglect of physical appearance/personal hygiene
  • Slurred speech or impaired motor skills
  • Shaking
  • Unexplained debt/financial problems
  • Secretive or suspicious behavior
  • A sudden change in peer groups
  • A lack of motivation
  • A change in attitude/mood swings

Do Not Lend Money

As a parent, this can be difficult because we want to ensure our young adult is taken care of. However, if you suspect substance abuse and your child asks for money for food or gas, take them to get the item they are in need of rather than giving them money. Do not enable their behavior.

Establish Rules, Limits, and Boundaries

These boundaries may include financial limits, household boundaries such as chores and expected responsibilities, and rules against substances in the home. Once rules and limits are set, you must adhere to these boundaries and the consequences set in place if these lines are crossed.

Self-Medication In Young Adults Issue

If you suspect your young adult is in need of professional help and may be self-medicating, now is the time to act.  Self-medication is a dangerous path if left unattended.  Start educating yourself on how you can help your young adult today.

Pure Life Adventure’s Whitepaper, available here, is your 7 step guide to learning more about self-medication, signs, and how to stop enabling the behavior. 

Download our whitepaper on Self-Medication in Young Adults and how, as a parent, you can help begin treatment now.

Pure Life Adventure wants to help your young adult put down the substances and start healing themselves from the inside out. Our wilderness adventure therapy program is a wonderful place to start the healing process.  Our outdoor adventure therapy program will:

  • Remove your young adult from their toxic environment
  • Incorporates adventure therapy activities such as rappelling, surfing and rafting
  • Immerses the student in the therapy of nature; most of their time will be spent outdoors
  • Work with locals and will provide service to the community
  • Gain confidence and self-esteem
  • Provide individual and group therapy with a licensed therapist
  • Establish healthy coping techniques and skills to prevent future substance abuse

This program is a great option for those who have thought about taking a gap year. Many young adults are overwhelmed by the impending responsibilities of becoming an adult. That’s why they turn to self-medication. Instead of stepping away and taking a gap year to travel, a wilderness adventure therapy program provides opportunities for exploring the world while receiving treatment and learning important life skills.

Start the healing process today. Reach out to Pure Life Adventures and see how we can help your young adult stop self-medicating to deal with stress and other mental illnesses. There is hope and help ahead. Pure Life Adventure is a safe, holistic, and healing path to a better future.

More On Anxiety From Pure Life…

Wilderness Adventure Therapy in Costa Rica
Taking the Edge Off: Self-Medicating for Anxiety
Enabling Adult Children Who Are Self-Medicating

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