The Danger of Self-Medicating to Deal with Stress

Medically reviewed by Dr. Mark Hrymoc, M.D.

Self-medicating to deal with stress is a nationwide problem. Stress in America 2022 revealed more than one in 10 adults said they have been using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax.

This coping mechanism, known as self-medicating, carries severe potential consequences. The dangers of self-medicating to deal with stress extend far beyond the immediate hazards, with individuals risking not only physical health complications but also a potential downward spiral into addiction.

If you use drugs, alcohol, or other substances to deal with stress, it is crucial to understand the risks to your physical and mental health. In this article, we’re exploring the danger of self-medicating to deal with stress.

Mental Health Challenges of Self-Medicating to Deal with Stress

Misusing any substance may lead to dependence on the substance, thinking it must have it to survive. Dependence may lead to addiction. 

These effects on the brain can worsen pre-existing mental health disorder symptoms. They can also create new symptoms. Some drugs, for example, cause hallucinations. Taking too much of this drug may lead to hallucinations even when you are not using the drug. Some even develop schizophrenia.

Opioids and alcohol are sedating and may lead to depressive disorders. Methamphetamines and marijuana may trigger psychosis.

Physical Health Challenges

Self-medicating with substances affects your entire body. What you consume can alter your blood pressure, breathing, and heart rate. If food is your substance of choice, you may develop obesity, which can lead to diabetes, stroke, and heart disease, among other conditions.

Alcohol can damage the liver, esophagus, and stomach, and most illicit drugs affect all the body’s organs. Long-term abuse of tobacco and alcohol can lead to cancer and major diseases.

Alcohol and drug misuse can be life-threatening. Some substances can produce fatal interactions when taken with prescription or over-the-counter medications. They can also cause accidental deaths. According to reports, between 2020 and 2021, 96,000 people died from drug overdoses.

Self-Medicating Checklist

Every person may self-medicate differently. Some forms may seem worse than others, but none are truly successful in getting to the root of the problem. If you aren’t sure whether you or someone you know is self-medicating, read the following statements. If any applies to your situation, it’s time to seek help.

  • When you feel stressed, you eat comfort foods, drink alcohol, or take drugs to feel better.
  • When you can’t access or run out of your substance of choice, you experience anxiety.
  • Coping with food, alcohol, or drugs is causing more problems than relieving stress.
  • You do not feel better after using substances to relieve stress.
  • You need to increase the amount you usually consume to feel good.
  • You continue to use the substances even when you experience consequences.
  • You become more isolated and less social to spend more time self-medicating.
  • You spend most of your time self-medicating.
  • During less stressful periods, you crave alcohol, drugs, or other substances.

Frequently Asked Questions

Mental health and substance abuse professionals get many questions from family members and friends of someone self-medicating. Below are some of the most common regarding self-medicating to deal with stress.

What Are Some Forms of Self-Medication?

Behaviors that may help you deal with stress are likely different for others. Some may cope by misusing alcohol, prescription medications, illicit drugs, or over-the-counter medicines due to their altering effect on the brain. Others may engage in behaviors that include sex, food, exercise, video gaming, skydiving, cutting, and other types of self-harm. Many of these carry significant health risks.

Why Do People Self-Medicate?

Not everyone knows they are self-medicating. Problems don’t usually happen overnight. Over months and years, they slowly get bigger and more intrusive. Along the way, someone found a substance that helped, and they haven’t yet recognized their unhealthy behaviors.

One study found that younger Caucasian males who are separated, divorced, or widowed were more likely to self-medicate for mood and anxiety disorders.

Other reasons include the following:

  • To cope with symptoms like anxiety and depression
  • To treat symptoms when a person has been misdiagnosed
  • Treatment resistance in which no medications improve symptoms
  • Attempt to treatside effects of other medications
  • To avoid withdrawal symptoms

How Can I Stop Self-Medicating?

You can avoid the danger of self-medicating to deal with stress by seeking help from a mental health and substance abuse treatment center, like The Mental Health Center. Working with a psychiatrist and licensed therapist, your treatment plan may include proper medication, individual and group therapy, family therapy, support groups, and, if needed, advanced treatments. An example of advanced treatment is Ketamine-assisted therapy.

Seek Professional Support

Trying to stop self-medicating can be difficult and, depending on the substance, dangerous. For example, if you are a heavy alcohol drinker and quit drinking cold turkey, you may experience seizures.

For safe and effective support, contact Mental Health Center located at the Cedars-Sinai East Tower to learn how we can help provide addiction treatment.


Self-medicating is a nationwide problem among people of all ages. There are many dangers of self-medicating to deal with stress. It can lead to physical and mental health problems, including worsening the symptoms you try to eliminate. 

Don’t give up if you are trying to quit self-medicating without success. There are many therapeutic options to help you stop. Contact our staff today to learn more.