How to Tell if You’re Self-Med­i­cat­ing

Know the signs and how to ad­dress them

Reader's Digest (Canada) - - Contents - BY DI­ANA DUONG

Know the signs and how to ad­dress them. DI­ANA DUONG

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 self­med­i­ca­tion 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.”

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