For some people, when a stressful situation arises – perhaps giving a speech at a friend’s wedding, or having to meet a spouse’s work colleagues at dinner – knocking back a couple of alcoholic drinks for some ‘liquid courage’ helps take the edge off. And for some, the occasional use of a substance to ease anxiety in these ways is completely harmless. For others, however, it can lead to dependence and eventually addiction.
When someone has an undiagnosed mental disorder such as anxiety or depression, they are more likely to develop a substance abuse problem if they begin reaching for alcohol or other drugs to relieve their symptoms – or in other words – self-medicating.
According to one study, more than 12% of study participants who had an anxiety disorder and had self-medicated with alcohol developed an alcohol addiction later on – compared to just 4.5% of anxiety sufferers who developed an alcohol addiction in those that did not self-medicate. Of those diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), approximately 40% had abused or been dependent on alcohol at some point.
For many people who are trying to escape their feelings of stress or despair, infrequently using substances can be fine. However, when someone begins relying on the substance to ease these negative feelings on a regular basis, the brain actually forgets how to use its own healthy coping mechanisms, and begins to rely on the next ‘fix’ to make them feel better. Thus, the beginning of an addiction problem is born.
As the addiction or reliance on alcohol or other substances takes hold, the person will begin to show signs to friends and loved ones, although these loved ones may not know what these signs really mean. When out to dinner, for example, the person in question will likely be distracted until they are served their drink, or they will encourage you to join them drink more during or after the meal. If you are sharing a bottle of wine, they may consistently drink their glass faster so as to have it refilled more quickly – as the thought of not getting the majority of the bottle is frightening (subconsciously or not). As well, they may be drinking more quickly in an effort to ease their inner anxieties, as simply being out for dinner may cause stress. They may even have had some drinks at home before going out, and you might notice that just one glass of wine has made them seem ‘tipsy’ when they normally don’t get drunk so fast.
On top of these physical signs, the blossoming addict will be going through some inner turmoil that may not be as obvious. The drink or drug which once proved helpful, is now consuming their thought process, and often their life. It has taken on a life of its own. Their inner pain, shame, and loss of self-honesty and control (at this point there is little chance that they will admit to their addiction) will only drive them to drink or use more. And, as happens frequently, family and friends may notice something is off, but are unsure of the actual problem – thus allowing the addict to dive deeper into the addiction.
Dr. Tian Dayton gives an excellent description of this endless and harmful cycle here. If you or anyone you know appears to be suffering from an undiagnosed mental health issue, and is possibly self-medicating instead of seeking help, be sure to contact a professional.