Do the Right Thing

Spirit, science, and health

Better Living through Chemistry: Make Self-Medicating Work for You

We all self medicate. Be sure you do it thoughtfully and safely.

We all self-medicate. Just look at the line at your favorite morning coffee shop or how busy the bartender is at your favorite restaurant. Additionally, look in the medicine cabinet of any friend or relative and you’ll likely see plenty of medications that manage mood, attention/concentration, and pain. There is no question that just about everyone self-medicates but the real question is do you do it thoughtfully, safely, and effectively?

People have used the upper of caffeine, the downer of alcohol, and the numbing of pain killers for centuries in all cultures. Using chemicals (even if in food, beverages, smokes, or pills) to alter your mood, attention, pain control, or sleep/alertness is a way of life. However, with so many products readily available the potential for abuse and for harm is significant. Sadly, so many people ruin their lives (and the lives of others) because their self-medication has gotten way out of control and has become destructive, abusive, and addictive.

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Perhaps one way to increase the chances that self-medication won’t be harmful is to follow a few simple rules. These include the following:

1. If you have a family history or a personal history of addiction or substance abuse you need to be hypervigilant regarding your behavior and find trusted others to help you make healthy decisions about self-medication.

2. Keep your consumption of alcohol to government recommended levels (e.g., up to 1 drink a day for women and 2 for men) assuming you don’t have a history of substance abuse or either medical or psychiatric issues that are of concern.

3. Don’t borrow or use the medications of others without careful medical consultation. A lot of people go to their friend or family member’s medicine cabinet and help themselves to pain killers, sleep and anxiety medicines, and other medications on a regular basis.

4. Always get consultation with a professional and be sure you don’t self-medicate in secret.

Hopefully, if you closely follow a few easy to remember principles you’ll self-medicate safely.

 So, what do you think? 

Thomas Plante, PhD, ABPP, is the Augustin Cardinal Bea, SJ University Professor at Santa Clara University and Adjunct Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University.

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