Self-Medication Theory: Is Addiction A Learned Behavior?

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D. on September 2, 2022

The self-medication theory is one way to explain addictive behaviors demonstrated by those who develop substance use disorder. Researchers believe self-medication can be influenced by a number of factors, and may be a behavior that is learned through the example of others.

Self-Medication And Addiction

Several theories exist for what causes people to abuse drugs or alcohol, and why it is so common among people with co-occurring mental health disorders.

One such theory is the self-medication theory for addiction. This proposes that people use substances like drugs or alcohol as a way to relieve discomfort, stress, or symptoms of a mental illness.

You might ask: What causes someone to self-medicate? According to experts, there are likely a few different factors at play, which may include both nature and nurture elements.

What Is Self-Medication?

Self-medication is a term used to describe the non-prescribed use of a substance, or behavior, to relieve significant emotional or physical discomfort.

Common examples include:

  • self-medicating with alcohol
  • self-medicating with opioid analgesics
  • self-medicating with stimulants (e.g. amphetamines, caffeine)
  • self-medicating with over-the-counter drugs (e.g. OTC painkillers)
  • self-medicating with prescription medications
  • self-medicating with food
  • self-medicating with compulsive gambling

This form of self-soothing behavior, sometimes described as “self-treatment,” stands in contrast with a treatment that is prescribed by a doctor.

This is a behavior someone engages in of their own volition, without explicit direction by a qualified healthcare professional.

Is Self-Medication And Addiction A Learned Behavior?

Self medication practices, including addictive behaviors, can be learned through observation, either directly or indirectly. For instance, growing up with a parent who self-medicates.

Children and adolescents are particularly susceptible to learning by example.

If they see a parent, guardian, family member, friend, or authority figure behave in a certain way, that can provide legitimacy for that behavior.

This can include forms of self-medication such as:

Adults can also learn by example. Moreover, genetics, and other social and environmental factors, can additionally play a role in the development of self-medicating behaviors.

Why Might Someone Self-Medicate?

The reasons why a person self-medicates with drugs or alcohol can be complex.

It’s often the case that self-medication is not the first line of action people take for finding symptom relief, especially in the case of illicit drug use.

Nonetheless, this can occur if some need of the person — be it a need for pain relief or relief for emotional distress or others — is being unmet.

Self-Medication And Mental Health

Self-medication is common among people with mental health disorders.

Common mental health disorders that co-occur with substance use include:

  • major depression
  • anxiety disorders
  • post-traumatic stress disorder
  • obsessive compulsive disorder
  • bipolar disorder
  • schizophrenia
  • borderline personality disorder
  • attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • other mood disorders

A person with a mental health disorder may self-medicate because they lack access to the healthcare system, specific health services, or because a treatment has previously failed to effectively relieve a symptom or health condition.

What’s commonly shared among people who self-medicate is a need to find relief.

Unfortunately, drugs and alcohol can be a harmful and dangerous way to seek relief from emotional or physical symptoms of distress.

What Are The Dangers Of Self-Medication?

Self-medication with drugs or alcohol can be risky for a number of reasons.

Illicit drugs, as well as many prescription drugs and alcohol, can cause physical dependence and psychological addiction when they are abused chronically.

This can pose severe health risks, as well as negatively impact overall well-being and quality of life.

Health Dangers Of Self-Medication

Dependence and addiction are two serious risks of self-medication. But self-medication can also lead to other health risks that are commonly associated with substance abuse.

Risks and dangers of self-medication include:

  • worsened mental health issues over time
  • incorrect manner of drug administration
  • inadvertently masking a severe disease
  • delays in seeking medical advice
  • dangerous drug interactions
  • withdrawal syndrome
  • cognitive issues
  • accidental overdose
  • cardiovascular problems
  • increased risk for injury (e.g. falls, motor vehicle accidents)

Health dangers can also vary by the drug type.

Excessive use of opioids, for instance, can cause breathing troubles, while stimulants (e.g. amphetamine) can affect heart function and increase the risk of stroke.

Dangers Of Self-Medication With Illicit Drugs

Self-medicating with illicit drugs carries substantial risks. With some drugs, this can include life-threatening health problems such as respiratory depression, cardiac arrest, and stroke.

As it is, the illicit drug market in the United States today is saturated with drugs that often contain toxic and very powerful substances, often unbeknownst to the person who is buying.

This can increase the risk for overdose and other adverse side effects. Injection drug use and insufflation (snorting drugs) also come with various health hazards.

What Is The Best Treatment For Self-Medication?

Self-medication with drugs or alcohol is a form of substance misuse, and can be a sign of a substance use disorder — the clinical term for “addiction.”

Overcoming this condition may require professional substance use treatment, beginning with detoxification (detox), followed by a full intensive or outpatient treatment program.

A treatment plan for self-medication may include:

Find Treatment For Self-Medication Today

At, it’s our goal to connect people with the treatment and resources they need to live happy and healthy lives, addiction-free.

For more information about self-medication, or to find treatment for self-medication near you, call our helpline to speak with a specialist today.

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

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Medically Reviewed by
Johnelle Smith, M.D. on September 2, 2022

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