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Alcohol use is one of the most prominent forms of substance use of all time, with its use both normalized and often celebrated in social settings. Despite this, the harms of unmoderated alcohol use are well-documented, with excessive alcohol use contributing to increased risks of chronic diseases, mental health disorders, and other life-threatening health problems. In addition, those who already experience distressing symptoms of mental health conditions, like chronic anxiety, may be shocked to discover that self-medicating with alcohol can not only perpetuate but also exacerbate symptoms of anxiety disorders. Meanwhile, it is essential to utilize professional treatment to overcome self-medicating practices and, in turn, to establish healthy coping mechanisms for anxiety management in recovery. 

At CCM, we specialize in guiding and supporting individuals who are seeking healing from various mental, behavioral, and substance abuse concerns. We do this by providing professional concierge services to connect clients with the most appropriate treatment and long-term wellness options to fit their individualized needs and recovery goals. Those struggling with anxiety and co-occurring alcohol use as a result of self-medication require participation in professional treatment for recovery, and we are here to help facilitate treatment entry and engagement to enable long-term healing and lasting sobriety. 

Self-Medicating With Alcohol

As explained by the journal Depression and Anxiety, self-medicating is the use of alcohol or other drugs in an attempt to cope or treat difficult symptoms. Many individuals are at risk of engaging in self-medicating practices, such as those experiencing lingering effects of unresolved trauma from their past or those who struggle with mental health disorders. While sometimes self-medicating may be intentional, many people do so unknowingly. In either case, self-medicating practices can place individuals at risk of worsening mental health consequences as well as the development of additional health complications. 

The Effects of Alcohol and Drug Use on the Brain

In addition to experiencing mental, emotional, and/or physical symptoms of distress, one of the elements that make individuals most vulnerable to self-medicating practices is merely being introduced to alcohol and drug use. Simply put, our brains are designed to remember activities and behaviors that bring us feelings of pleasure, mediated by the neurotransmitter dopamine. When we are healthy, certain brain structures (such as the basal ganglia) work together to foster motivation for carrying out healthy activities like eating, socializing, and having sex for the dopamine they produce. Similarly, these brain systems help to perpetuate habits and routines. 

However, alcohol and other drug use over-activate these brain systems and produce large surges of dopamine, fostering the perceived euphoria of the drug high. In other words, an individual’s brain will connect the behavior of substance use with these newfound, utmost feelings of pleasure. Yet, it is important to note that the effects of alcohol and other drugs are temporary; once such effects wear off, withdrawal symptoms and cravings may quickly surface, triggering an individual to engage in substance use repeatedly. As explained by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), “Large surges of dopamine ‘teach’ the brain to seek drugs at the expense of other, healthier goals and activities.”

Furthermore, over time and through repeated substance use, such brain systems become more and more sensitive, causing an individual to need more of a substance to achieve their desired high. Moreover, when an individual uses substances to self-medicate, they are at risk of using substances in greater quantities and severities, placing themselves at risk of substance use disorder (SUD) and addiction. More specifically, those self-medicating with alcohol are at risk of alcohol use disorder (AUD), which can trigger life-threatening dangers. 

The Dangers of Self-Medicating Anxiety Symptoms

Those who struggle with anxiety may experience intrusive thoughts, uncomfortable emotions, and physical symptoms that interfere with their ability to function well in daily life. Since alcohol is a depressant, it works to slow activity in the brain and central nervous system, making alcohol use seem like a promising way to cope with unpleasant symptoms of anxiety. However, the truth is that self-medicating alcohol can make anxiety worse. 

First and foremost, alcohol has a direct effect on brain chemistry and can induce panic when an individual drinks repeatedly or excessively. Thus, alcohol use can cause worsening anxiety symptoms as well as anxiety disorders. Next, self-medicating with alcohol over time will cause withdrawal symptoms when an individual is not actively drinking, which can manifest as distressing physical and psychological symptoms. Such symptoms can interfere with daily functioning, sleep, and overall health, leading to an increase in daily anxiety. Lastly, self-medicating practices suppress anxious feelings, causing them to fester. In this way, when an individual is sober, their anxiety may feel unmanageable as the root causes of their distress are left unaddressed. 

Breaking the Cycle of Self-Medicating With Alcohol

Those who are self-medicating with alcohol will require professional treatment and support to not only find healing from anxiety but also to establish and sustain sobriety from alcohol use. Specifically, individuals can consider participating in a treatment program for co-occurring disorders, which helps clients address the root causes of their anxiety and substance use as well as treat both concerns in tandem to ensure long-term recovery. Additionally, treatment will help individuals learn healthy and effective coping mechanisms for navigating stress and anxiety to prevent future relapse and sustain sobriety. 

Oftentimes, one of the most troubling concerns of those seeking sobriety and recovery is identifying an appropriate treatment program to fit their unique needs and goals for recovery. Fortunately, we at CCM are committed to bridging this gap by connecting individuals and families with the most appropriate treatment and ancillary services to enable lasting healing and sobriety. We have the resources and professional support that individuals need to break the cycle of self-medicating and to promote long-term wellness for a lifetime to come. 

If you or a loved one is struggling with anxiety, it is important to understand the risks and dangers of self-medicating with alcohol. Simply put, self-medicating can make anxiety worse by triggering withdrawal symptoms and contributing to the development of alcohol use disorder (AUD) and addiction. Individuals must utilize professional treatment to overcome self-medicating practices and the mental health issues that inform them to enable lasting healing and sobriety. At CCM, we are dedicated to helping clients connect with the resources and programs that they need to establish and sustain long-term recovery. To learn more about our concierge services, professional expertise, and behavioral health solutions, call us at (855) 467-3226 today.