6 Reasons Why People Self-Medicate With Substances

There are various mental health challenges that can contribute to people resorting to substance abuse as a coping mechanism. This behaviour can often serve as a way for individuals to self-soothe and momentarily alleviate mental distress. Keep reading to discover six key reasons why someone may turn to substance abuse as a means of coping.

1. To Numb Feelings of Distress

Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and a loss of interest in activities can make life seem overwhelming. Those grappling with such emotional challenges might resort to substances as a way to momentarily escape or numb feelings of distress.

2. To Cope With Anxiety

Some people struggle with persistent worry, fear, and anxiety, which can significantly impact their daily lives – for example, people on the C-PTSD spectrum.  

These individuals may turn to substances as a temporary relief, seeking to calm racing thoughts or alleviate feelings of anxiousness.

3. To Deal With Traumatic Experiences

After experiencing a traumatic event, people may find themselves grappling with post-traumatic stress, which can manifest as intrusive memories, nightmares, and hypervigilance. To cope with these distressing experiences, some people may turn to substances to temporarily numb emotional pain and provide a sense of escape.

4. In Response to Extreme Mood Swings

Fluctuations between manic episodes (elevated mood and increased energy) and depressive episodes (low mood and lack of motivation) can be overwhelming for individuals. Some may resort to substance abuse to manage the intensity of their emotions or to intensify their moments of heightened mood.

5. To Find Focus and Control

Those diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), characterized by difficulties in attention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity, may resort to substance abuse as a way to self-medicate.

They may seek improved focus, reduced restlessness, or relief from feelings of boredom. Alcohol can have a sedating effect on the nervous system, leading some individuals diagnosed with ADHD to believe that it helps them relax and improves their ability to concentrate.

6. To Escape From Overstimulation

Some people have heightened sensitivity to external stimuli, leading to feelings of being overwhelmed or overstimulated. Alcohol may be used as a means of temporarily escaping or numbing the sensory overload experienced in daily life.

Why Substance Abuse Is Problematic

Temporary Relief, Long-Term Consequences

Substances may provide temporary relief or escape from distress, but they don't address the underlying causes of the challenges. In fact, substance use can exacerbate mental health issues and lead to a vicious cycle of dependency, addiction, and worsening symptoms over time.

Dangerous to Physical Health

Substance abuse can have severe adverse effects on physical health. Different substances can damage vital organs such as the liver, heart, lungs, and brain. For example, cocaine use puts a tremendous strain on the cardiovascular system. When you overcome cocaine addiction, your heart rate and blood pressure will gradually return to normal, reducing the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular complications.

Relationship Damage

Substance abuse can strain relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. It can lead to conflicts, breakdowns in communication, and loss of trust. Social consequences can include isolation, social withdrawal, and a decline in overall social functioning.

Financial and Legal Issues

There are also significant financial implications involved – maintaining a substance abuse habit can be costly, leading to financial strain, debt, or legal troubles. Substance-related offenses can also result in legal consequences such as arrests, fines, or incarceration.

Disruptive to Work and Education Opportunities

Substance abuse can negatively impact occupational and educational pursuits. It can impair job performance, attendance, and academic achievement. Individuals may face difficulties in meeting responsibilities, maintaining employment, or pursuing educational goals, leading to lower self-esteem.

4 Coping Alternatives

1. Improving Coping Skills Through Therapy

Reach out to professionals such as therapists, counselors, or a psychiatrist near you who can provide appropriate support tailored to your specific needs.

Engage in evidence-based therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), or trauma-informed therapies. Therapy can help you develop coping skills, explore underlying issues, and improve your emotional wellbeing.

It’s very important to find a therapist that you click with. The biggest indicator of good outcomes in therapy is the relationship between the therapist and the client – more so than the treatment modality or years of experience. So, don’t be afraid to ditch a therapist who’s not a good fit. This is your treatment, and it’s all about what’s going to be best for you.

2. Using a Rehabilitation Program

You can also access therapy through a rehabilitation program. These programs offer various levels of care and approaches to treatment, tailored to meet the specific needs of each person.

Here are some common types of rehabilitation programs:

  • Inpatient Rehabilitation: Inpatient or residential rehabilitation programs provide intensive, 24-hour care in a structured and supportive environment. Individuals live at the treatment facility for a designated period, typically ranging from a few weeks to several months. Inpatient programs offer comprehensive therapy, medical monitoring, detoxification if necessary, and a range of treatment modalities.
  • Outpatient Rehabilitation: Outpatient rehabilitation programs allow individuals to receive treatment while living at home or in a sober living environment. Outpatient programs provide therapy, group support, and educational sessions on a scheduled basis. This option allows individuals to maintain their daily routines while attending treatment sessions.
  • Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOP): IOPs are structured programs that offer a higher level of care than traditional outpatient programs. Individuals attend therapy and treatment sessions several times a week, usually for a few hours each session. IOPs provide a comprehensive range of services, including individual counseling, group therapy, and educational workshops.
  • Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHP): In terms of IOP vs PHP, PHPs provide a higher level of care. Individuals attend treatment sessions during the day, typically for several hours, while returning home or to a supportive living environment in the evenings. PHPs offer intensive therapy, medical supervision, and a structured treatment plan.
  • Dual Diagnosis Treatment Programs: Dual diagnosis programs specialize in treating individuals who have both substance abuse issues and co-occurring diagnosed mental health disorders. These programs integrate substance abuse treatment with mental health services to address both conditions simultaneously.
  • Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) Programs: MAT programs combine medication, such as methadone, buprenorphine, or naltrexone, with counseling and behavioural therapies. These programs are primarily used for individuals dealing with opioid addiction or in alcohol rehab. MAT helps manage withdrawal symptoms, reduce cravings, and support long-term recovery.

3. Starting a Self-Help Journey

Using self-help tools to acquire coping skills such as emotion regulation strategies, stress management techniques, mindfulness, and problem-solving skills can help people navigate challenges and prevent relapse.

Adopting a healthier lifestyle is also often a significant part of overcoming substance abuse. This includes incorporating regular exercise, engaging in positive hobbies and activities, practicing self-care, and making healthier choices in relationships, nutrition, and overall wellbeing. Again, self-help tools can be an extremely valuable resource empowering people to do this.

Furthermore, many people who overcome substance abuse mention the importance of shifting their mindset and engaging in self-reflection. This includes developing a positive outlook, practicing gratitude, challenging unhelpful thoughts, and building self-awareness and self-compassion. If starting a self-help journey interests you, be sure to check out The Mental Wellbeing Toolkit.

4. Building a Support Network

Social connection is vital to our mental wellbeing.

Connect with support networks such as support groups, peer communities, or online forums where people facing similar challenges can share experiences, offer support, and provide guidance.

Build and maintain healthy relationships with supportive friends, family members, or mentors who can provide understanding, empathy, and encouragement during difficult times.


There are several reasons why people turn to substance abuse as a coping mechanism. Common motivations include: numbing distressing feelings, coping with anxiety and trauma, managing extreme mood swings, seeking focus and control, and escaping overstimulation.

Although substances may provide temporary relief, the long-term consequences are highly problematic.

Therapy, rehabilitation programs, self-help strategies, and building a support network can help people cope with distress without using substances.   

It’s important to note that overcoming substance abuse is not an easy task. It requires a strong commitment to change and a willingness to put in significant effort and work towards recovery.

Relapse is a common part of the recovery process for many people. Setbacks can happen, and relapse does not mean failure. It can serve as a learning opportunity and a chance to reassess and strengthen your recovery strategies.

Ultimately, patience and perseverance are key as individuals work through challenges, address underlying issues, and develop new ways of living without relying on substances.

Build Your Mental Wellbeing Toolkit

Research shows that self-help materials are often enough for people to overcome mild to moderate mental health difficulties without professional support.

If you’re interested in a self-guided program that includes tools from CBT, ACT and more, be sure to check out The Mental Wellbeing Toolkit. It's "like 10 therapy sessions in one."

The Mental Wellbeing Toolkit


About Rebecca

Rebecca is the founder of The Wellness Society and author of two fluff-free books, The Framework and Understanding and Healing Trauma.

She's passionate about creating concise and compassionate mental health and wellbeing tools that address the root causes of distress.

Read more about her views on our About page.