Anxiety disorders are as plentiful as they are overwhelming. According to research, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, impacting an estimated 40 million adults ages 18 and older. When bombarded by symptoms of anxiety, people can often feel overwhelmed and even debilitated, unable to work, go to school, or participate—let alone enjoy—life. This often leads to a feeling of helplessness. In turn, individuals plagued with anxiety’s side effects turn to self-medicating.
One study describes self-medicating as “the taking of drugs, herbs, or home remedies on one’s own initiative, or on the advice of another person, without consulting a doctor.”
Often, it’s alcohol and drugs that serve as the primary choice of self-medication—but people also turn to food and nicotine as additional examples. Whatever the choice of self-medication, the intent is typically to escape, numb, or find relief from anxiety symptoms.
Although an individual may initially achieve the desired effect—numbing, escaping, or feeling relieved—these reprieves are temporary. Self-medicating is a dangerous gamble that typically ends up worsening anxiety, rather than treating the condition. And, there are other risks as well, which we’ll explore in further detail later.
If you are seeking ways to ease your anxiety without self-medicating, you are not alone! The temptation to alleviate anxiety symptoms is a real and common scenario—one that millions of people routinely face. At Futures of Recovery Healthcare, we provide comprehensive, personalized treatment for several types of anxiety disorders.
We have a team of compassionate, licensed care providers—doctors, psychotherapists, case managers, wellness professionals, and nurses—who specialize in helping people with mental illness reduce and manage their symptoms—including anxiety disorders. Our ultimate goal is to help relieve anxiety symptoms in a safe, effective, and healthy way, so that you can live a happy, fulfilling life moving forward.
Keep reading to learn how to apply positive strategies to relieve anxiety (without having to self-medicate).
Why Do People With Anxiety Self-Medicate With Alcohol or Drugs?
As we briefly discussed, people can self-medicate in different ways:
But, one of the main reasons why people with anxiety disorders use alcohol and drugs to self-medicate has much to do with the way addictive substances affect the brain. Drugs and alcohol produce euphoric or intense feelings of pleasure when individuals initially use them. The keyword to revisit here is “initially.” The problem with turning to alcohol and drugs as “medication” is that eventually, the positive effects of these addictive substances fade.
Why do alcohol and drugs only work temporarily to relieve anxiety symptoms? The answer has to do with the way long-term substance use alters the brain. When the brain becomes dependent upon a substance and is deprived of it, it then experiences “withdrawal.” This not only produces physical withdrawal symptoms in a person, but it can also compel them to want to use more and more of the substance to achieve those once “euphoric and pleasurable” feelings they once experienced. This is one of the main reasons why self-medicating with alcohol and drugs is dangerous.
Dangers of Self-Medicating with Addictive Substances
While self-medicating is a behavior that occurs in the general population, studies demonstrate that self-medicating among people with existing anxiety disorders and mental illness is significantly higher.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health revealed that approximately
9.2 million adults aged 18 or older (3.7% of all adults) had both any mental illness (AMI) and at least one substance abuse disorder (SUD) in the past year. And, 3.2 million adults (1.3 percent of all adults) had a co-occurring serious mental illness (SMI) and a SUD in the past year.
The prevalence of self-medicating with alcohol and/or drugs among those with a mental disorder or anxiety disorder ranged from 21.9% to 24.1%.
In addition to developing an addiction from self-medicating with alcohol and drugs, additional risks involve:
- Avoiding seeking appropriate medical, psychological treatment
- Taking too much of a drug or ingesting dangerous amounts of alcohol, resulting in a possible overdose
- Failing to understand drug interactions (if a person happens to be taking prescribed medication)
- Experiencing physical side effects from self-medicating (allergy, adverse reactions)
Self-Medicating Across the Anxiety Disorder Spectrum
There are actually several different types of anxiety disorders, the symptoms of which may prompt individuals to self-medicate. These include:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
People with GAD chronically worry about daily life, often resulting in exhaustion, tension, headaches, and nausea.
- Social Anxiety Disorder
Those with social anxiety disorder have significant fear when it comes to social interaction. They may worry about being humiliated, feel nervous about communicating and can even experience panic attacks when faced with having to socially interact.
- Panic Disorder
Individuals with panic disorder are often prone to panic attacks. They may feel as though they are having a heart attack, experiencing chest pain, rapid heart rate/palpitations, dizziness, upset stomach, and shortness of breath. As a result of their predisposition to panic attacks, people with panic disorder may choose to isolate themselves, even pulling away from loved ones and friends.
Phobias can range from a fear of spiders (arachnophobia) to a fear of heights (arachnophobia) or even a fear of being in a car (amaxophobia). Depending on the type and extent of the phobia, many people will avoid the situation, place, or thing at all costs.
As we discussed earlier, because of the challenging symptoms that are associated with this list of anxiety disorders, self-medicating is common. But, there are other, healthier, and positive ways to ease the side effects of anxiety.
How to Ease Anxiety Without Self-Medicating
While the byproducts of anxiety can feel overwhelming and often overpowering, many people have found successful ways to manage their symptoms. Some of the approaches to help ease anxiety without self-medicating include:
- Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
To help manage and reduce the symptoms of anxiety, trained psychologists help individuals with CBT to identify, challenge, and change their thought processes and behaviors.
Biofeedback is another process utilized by trained mental health professionals in which an electronic instrument is used to help people with anxiety identify involuntary physiological processes, learn from them, and apply alterations to the negative behavior.
- Meditation and Mindfulness
Certain breathing techniques—breathing in slowly to the count of five and breathing out to the same count—can be used as a form of meditation and mindfulness. Even sitting for a few minutes, with your back straight, arms folded in your lap, eyes closed can help bring your attention back to the present (eliminating worries attached to the past or present), and help improve focus. Some people find it helpful to use “guided meditations” or mindfulness activities, many of which can be found on apps for smart devices.
Akin to mindfulness and meditation, yoga helps bring attention to the current moment—and, to your body. Many people who routinely practice yoga describe feeling “more grounded” when doing yoga poses. More challenging poses can encourage strength of mind and body, helping you learn how to “breathe through” difficulties (rather than running from—or avoiding—them). Additionally, more relaxing poses offer a feeling of restoration and invite calmness.
Aerobic activity such as jogging, cycling, swimming, and other forms of exercise help alleviate many of the symptoms associated with both anxiety and depression.
Having a set schedule helps provide structure and eliminates “unknowns” that can tend to exacerbate anxiety. Routines can also provide a sense of security and positivity. Every time you complete an aspect of your daily schedule is an accomplishment and provides proof that you can do it again tomorrow (and the next day).
Not having enough rest and sleep worsens the symptoms of anxiety. It’s important to make sure to limit caffeine and engage in restful activities—especially close to bedtime to encourage healthy sleep. Some people also find that turning the TV off and reading a soothing or comforting book helpful to inviting drowsiness.
Doing something creative—whether painting, drawing, sculpting, knitting, crocheting, woodworking, crafting—can help shift your attention and energy from whatever is anxiety-producing to something artistic or creative. And, many people find that simply the act of being creative helps provide a sense of healing and accomplishment.
Do I Need Professional Help for My Anxiety?
This is a question we field quite often at Futures. And, the answer depends. While some people have great success incorporating strategies from the list above, others may still feel compelled to self-medicate or need help establishing a foundation of healthy anxiety-relieving tools.
If you or someone you love has been experiencing GAD, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, phobias, or another anxiety-related disorder, you are not alone. As we mentioned earlier, millions of people live with anxiety
And, although anxiety disorders can feel overwhelming and often unmanageable, many people are able to successfully treat their symptoms and enjoy a healthy and satisfying life. At Futures, we provide comprehensive, compassionate care for a wide range of mental illnesses, including anxiety disorder.
Help for anxiety disorder can start today. Contact us confidentially online or by phone at 866-804-2098.