IT CAN START innocently. Have a headache? Take a Tylenol. Had a rough day? Grab some ice cream. Self-medication is, essentially, giving your body whatever you believe it needs to feel better, without having to drag yourself to the doctor.
While actively managing your health is a crucial part of maintaining well-being, self-medication can develop into overuse if you’re not careful. Here are some common forms, and how to curb them.
There’s nothing wrong with taking a painkiller regularly to manage your arthritis, but popping four pills at once is a red flag, says Philip Emberley, director of practice advancement and research at the Canadian Pharmacists Association. “Many think that if one pill works well, multiple pills will work better,” says Emberley. But overuse is hard on the liver and can cause irreversible damage. In order to avoid developing harmful habits, Emberley suggests sticking to the recommended dosage on the bottle or talking to your doctor or a clinical pharmacist if that dose isn’t doing the trick.
When it comes to prescription drugs, never take medication that belongs to someone else, he adds. This can result in dangerous drug interactions you might not be aware of. You could also build tolerance to the drug you’ve chosen to take, which can eventually lead to addiction or, worse, overdose.
“People usually start self-soothing using alcohol to relieve pain or help get to sleep,” says Dr. Donna Ferguson, a psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. A common example of misuse she’s noted is among clients who believe their sleep medication has failed and instead use a drink—or four—to doze off.
This behaviour can sometimes lead to dependency—and when you start doing things you normally wouldn’t, that’s a sign the self-medication technique has become an addiction, says Deborah Brooks, a psychotherapist based in Ottawa. “Typically people have a drink after a long day or on weekends,” she says. But if you’re drinking too frequently or too much, “that’s a problem.”
Many common self-medication practices don’t involve drugs and alcohol. Self-soothing also includes bingeing on food when under stress—because snacks that are high in sugar, salt or fat lead to a surge of dopamine, which increases pleasurable emotions. The difference between occasionally enjoying a rich mac and cheese and harmful self-medicating is when you start eating irregularly, says Ferguson. Compulsively consuming past the point of being full is a warning sign.
Shopping, gambling, obsessively using social media and gaming can all distract us from stressors. Different activities help different people, but they have a common thread: they might be used to mask difficult feelings.
A hobby becomes harmful if it’s too frequent or distracting—and prevents you from socializing, succeeding at work or school, or generally functioning at your regular capacity, says Brooks.
People who are self-soothing are generally the last to realize it. Often, that means friends, family or colleagues will clock the warning signs, such as the person becoming withdrawn or their productivity dipping. Once you’ve recognized this in someone—or they’ve recognized it themselves—start talking. Loved ones take the isolation out of self-medication, while medical professionals can help formulate a plan to break destructive habits. Ultimately, says Ferguson, recovering means “not just tackling the vice of choice, but also addressing the underlying reason why you’re self-medicating.” ■