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What Are The Most Abused Substances To Self-Medicate Anxiety?

Substance Abuse
What Are The Most Abused Substances To Self-Medicate Anxiety?

What Are The Most Abused Substances To Self-Medicate Anxiety?

Anxiety is a normal emotion that most of us have felt at one time or another. We may worry about a health problem or be concerned about meeting a work deadline. For some, though, anxiety becomes so intense that it interferes with daily life. The tension, strain, and stress can be serious enough that they try to find relief through a potentially dangerous practice: self-medication with alcohol or drugs.

What Is “Self-Medication”?

Self-medication involves using a substance to cope with negative feelings or physical discomfort without the guidance or oversight of a trained medical professional. Individuals struggling with anxiety may start abusing alcohol or drugs in order to calm themselves down and feel more relaxed. For example, they may get into the habit of drinking one or two beers before bed so they don’t lay awake at night feeling overwhelmed by life. They may smoke pot during a lunch break because they believe it will help them cope with a stressful workplace.

Specific Disorders And Substance Abuse

While any anxiety symptoms have the potential to contribute to substance abuse, a review of research suggests that those with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and panic disorder (PD) are most likely to struggle with substance abuse. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) – which also include significant anxiety although no longer categorized as anxiety disorders per se – have been closely linked to alcohol abuse [1].

Substances Used In Self-Medication

Someone experiencing anxiety can self-medicate with any substance.  Some of the most commonly used substances include:


What Are The Most Abused Substances To Self-Medicate Anxiety

Alcohol is a popular substance of abuse among anxiety sufferers.  Although it’s actually a depressant, drinking alcohol can initially numb feelings of stress, tension, nervousness, and fear. Alcohol also has a disinhibiting effect.  This means that it helps people feel less inhibited or restrained; making them more likely to do things they would never do normally.  This effect can make individuals feel freer and less afraid of the situation causing their anxiety.

For example, a disinhibited person may not be paralyzed by fear when he’s required to attend an office function or feel embarrassed or uncomfortable eating in public.  Consuming alcohol makes many individuals feel friendlier and less anxious. In fact, studies show that some people with social anxiety are more motivated to drink specifically to reduce their social fears [2]. However, despite its initial calming effects, alcohol can end up prolonging or worsening feelings of tension [3].


Marijuana is also quite popular with anxiety sufferers.  This is primarily due to its ability to help them feel more “laid back” and relaxed. According to one survey, nearly 90% of marijuana users reported they’d used the drug in order to relax [4]. When smoked, marijuana affects brain receptors linked to pleasure, producing a feeling of overall calmness.

Marijuana, like alcohol, may not be the effective anxiety reliever that many perceive it to be.  For example, some users report having panic attacks after smoking it. Researchers believe this side effect is due to THC – the active ingredient in marijuana.  THC has a negative impact on brain chemicals like serotonin and noradrenalin. Furthermore, some experts believe marijuana’s ability to impair thinking can contribute to increased anxiety in some users [5].


Statistics don’t reveal the exact number of people who abuse heroin to reduce anxiety.  However, the dangerous drug’s power to produce a relaxed state of mind may make it the drug of choice for some anxiety sufferers. When heroin is injected, the brain converts it to morphine. This causes a euphoric rush of warmth followed by drowsiness. Heroin is also said to blunt emotions, which may seem to take the edge off of stress, tension, and feelings of anxiousness. The feeling of relaxation is temporary, though, and users need to get high again in order to find relief.  This cycle can lead to a serious addiction to the drug.


It seems counterintuitive that anyone struggling with anxiety would choose to use a highly stimulating drug like cocaine. Experts theorize that the drug activates the brain in a way that allows someone struggling with social anxiety to break through inhibitions and cope with stressful situations [6]. Like heroin, cocaine offers only fleeting anxiety relief, causing the user to continually seek out a high. Addiction, overdose, and death are all potential risks.

The Drug Use/Anxiety Paradox

When a person lives with anxiety, it can seem as though substances do reduce the troubling symptoms – and they may in the short term. However, substance abuse, even in the form of self-medication, leads to long-term problems that generate additional stress. Some users get so high that they end up being late for work.  They may be unable to attend to the needs of their children or aging parents because their too drunk or have passed out. Substance abuse also harms their physical well-being.  Each substance takes its own toll on health, from the potential liver damage of alcohol abuse to the dangers of overdose with cocaine or heroin use.

In addition, finding, buying, and using illicit drugs can contribute to anxiety. Users may worry that family members will notice the scent of marijuana on their clothing or feel uneasy about buying street drugs from an acquaintance. Drug-related activities inevitably add to the stress and strain they’re so desperately trying to alleviate.

Healthier Treatments For Anxiety

Anxiety symptoms affect every aspect of your life, so it’s essential to find help. Self-medication is never an effective or healthy treatment for anxiety. A combination of therapy and lifestyle changes is often enough to reduce symptoms of anxiety without the dangers of alcohol or drug abuse.

A skilled therapist can tailor treatment to address your specific type of anxiety. For example, if you struggle with social phobia, you may receive exposure therapy.  Exposure therapy, as the name suggests, exposes you to anxiety-provoking situations in a gradual way that allows you to become more comfortable with them.  The goal is to become desensitized to the anxiety as the exposure increases and intensifies.

People with anxiety also frequently benefit from learning relaxation techniques. Strategies like deep breathing exercises can reduce anxiety on the spot by lowering your body’s physical response to stress. Regular exercise is also an effective way to lessen anxiety because it naturally increases the brain’s levels of endorphins, which help promote a sense of wellbeing.

If you’re already self-medicating, be honest with your therapist and other treatment providers about your substance abuse. This will give them the opportunity to accurately assess you and determine the best treatment approach for both issues.  You may be a good candidate for “dual diagnosis” treatment, which simultaneously addresses and treats your anxiety and your substance abuse problem.  Leaving the substance abuse untreated will likely undermine your anxiety therapy, and vice versa.

Don’t risk your health by self-medicating with alcohol or drugs. Reach out for help so you can find a better way to cope with anxiety and live the life you deserve.

Read More About How Anxiety And Mood Disorders Are Linked To Opioid Abuse



[1] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2904966/#!po=56.2500

[2] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23915169

[3] http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/07/110715163216.htm

[4] http://www.parl.gc.ca/Content/SEN/Committee/371/ille/presentation/hathaway-e.htm

[5] http://www.uniad.org.br/desenvolvimento/images/stories/arquivos/Cannabis_and_anxiety.pdf

[6] http://primarypsychiatry.com/the-self-medication-hypothesis-revisited-the-dually-diagnosed-patient/


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