People who drink or use drugs to calm down anxious nerves are at increased risk of developing full-blown substance abuse disorder down the road, Canadian researchers have found.
Their study is the first to try to shed light on a long-standing question: Do anxiety-ridden people self-medicate because they are substance abusers or do they become substance abusers because they self-medicate?
Tapping into a national US survey of drinking problems and mental illness, the researchers were able to follow close to 35,000 people over three years.
Of those who had anxiety disorder at the outset of the study and said they self-medicated with alcohol, 13% developed alcoholism, according to a report by Jennifer Robinson and her colleagues at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg in the Archives of General Psychiatry.
Among respondents who didn't self-medicate, only about 5% became alcoholics. The pattern held up for people who used drugs to calm their nerves.
After taking income, age and other factors into consideration, self-medicating people had 2.5 to 5 times the odds of becoming dependent on alcohol or drugs compared to people who followed their prescription.
In theory, a person who self-medicates could be a budding drug abuser without the interviewer having spotted it, so the findings aren’t conclusive evidences that self-medication is a slippery slope.
Still, the researchers say their study bolsters that hypothesis.
They also found that people who self-medicated with alcohol were three times as likely to develop social phobia as those who didn't.
It's possible those people had some degree of phobia from the start, according to the researchers, and their drug use fuelled it.
"Another possibility is that the social unacceptability of substance use may create a desire to avoid social contact in those who actively use other drugs," they write.
Addiction & Substance abuse