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Do you self-medicate your mental health with alcohol?

Drinking alcohol is not only accepted across many cultures, it’s encouraged. Readily available during celebrations and commiserations and a fixture in many homes, using it to manage feelings isn’t uncommon. 

Life can be challenging. Work, finances, family and other factors can cause us to experience stress and other intense emotions. Mental health difficulties like depression and anxiety are common. In order to cope, some turn to alcohol, drinking it to ‘take the edge off’ difficult feelings.  

What is self-medicating? 

The act of taking substances like drugs or alcohol to address pain, stress or other intense feelings—without the guidance of a doctor—is considered ‘self-medicating’. It’s a type of coping mechanism and we may not even be aware we’re doing it. Drinking can temporarily alleviate feelings associated with depression, like anger, sadness, frustration and loneliness, Yet, over the longer term, it doesn’t treat the underlying problem and can even make the symptoms of depression and anxiety worse, as well as lead to other health issues.  

Signs of self-medicating with alcohol 

Because alcohol is so readily available and socially acceptable, it can be hard to spot the signs: 

  • You turn to alcohol when you’re feeling stressed, anxious or depressed. Regularly drinking to overcome nerves, boredom or discomfort are all signs of self-medicating.  
  • You feel worse once the effects have worn off. Not only do you feel physically depleted, your mood worsens too. 
  • You have to drink increasing amounts to get the same relief. Developing a tolerance to alcohol means you’ll need to consume more for the same effects.  
  • Everything is getting worse. Drinking alcohol to self-medicate is destructive and can result in a downward spiral. E.g. Drinking to alleviate excess stress can cause problems at work, with your finances and in your relationships. 
  • You worry about access to alcohol. If it fills you with worry that you don’t have any at home, or you plot your journeys to incorporate pubs or off-licenses, it can indicate an issue. The more uncomfortable you feel about being separated from alcohol, the more likely it is you’re using it to self-medicate.  
  • Friends and family are raising their concerns. If those that know you best have noted changes in your behaviour and are worried about you, reflect and ask yourself, could they be right?’. 

What’s the alternative? 

Finding other ways to cope with depression, anxiety and challenging times in our lives is vital to support our ongoing health and wellbeing. Here’s some constructive ways to lift your mood and process difficulties without relying on alcohol: 

Reach out. A problem shared is a problem halved, right? Connecting with a trusted friend or family member and sharing how you’re feeling can provide relief and reassurance. Simply voicing your emotions can help you gain clarity and make a plan to move forwards. 

Exercise. Often, it’s the last thing we feel like doing if we’re stressed or feeling low but it can truly be the best medicine. Exercising boosts feel-good hormones and distracts us from negative thoughts, providing a beneficial physical and emotional release. You don’t need to sweat it out at the gym—unless you want to—even a brisk walk can help clear your mind.  

Find a relaxation practice you enjoy. Meditation, yoga and deep-breathing can promote calm feelings and stress release. Try to do it everyday if you can. Even 5 mins could make a difference to your outlook. 

Prioritise your sleep. Drinking alcohol robs us of quality sleep which compromises our immune system and overall health. By adopting positive habits around bedtime you can improve your chances of a good, restorative night’s sleep. Examples include limiting screen time and eliminating caffeine and nicotine in the hours before bed, having a peaceful, cool and comfortable sleeping environment and getting to bed at the same time each evening. 

Fuel your body well. There’s a strong link between mood and food. Often, sugary, fatty, salty and highly processed foods offer little in terms of nutrients. They contribute towards health problems like heart disease and obesity and cause dramatic swings in blood sugar which can affect our energy and moods. Eating a balanced diet, rich in colourful fruit and veg, lean proteins, whole grains and good fats can improve our mood and general health and wellbeing. Food is precious fuel for our bodies so try to choose foods that are going to be the best fuels when you can. 

Self-medicating can come about when we’re going through tricky times like grief, relationship break ups and money worries, or it can be a learnt behaviour we witnessed as we grew up. Whatever the reason, recovery is possible and the fact that you’ve read this far could mean you’re ready to change. Your GP can offer a non-judgemental ear and tell you about services available in your area. They can also refer you for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) if it will help you.  

Learning new ways to cope with stress and other demands on your mental health isn’t always easy, but it’s always worth it. You deserve to thrive and live a life of contentment and wellbeing and we‘rewith you every step of the way. 


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