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Self-medicating in teens to deal with stress can lead to a multitude of dangers, including addiction, worsening mental health issues, and physical health problems. Without proper guidance, they might misuse substances that can harm their development. This can further lead to poor academic performance, broken relationships, and a dangerous spiral into more severe mental health conditions.

The Danger of Teens Self-medicating to Deal with Stress

The phenomenon of teens self-medicating to deal with stress is a growing concern that has dire implications. With rising academic pressures, social anxieties, and personal issues, many adolescents find themselves overwhelmed and turn to substances like drugs or alcohol for temporary relief. However, this approach not only masks the underlying problems but can lead to addiction and long-term mental health issues.

The situation becomes more alarming when considering that the adolescent brain is still developing, making it more susceptible to the harmful effects of these substances. Self-medication can create a vicious cycle where the very substances used to alleviate stress end up causing more harm and even more stress. Relationships with family and friends can deteriorate, and academic performance may decline, leading to a spiral of negative consequences.

Addressing this issue requires a multifaceted approach. Education and awareness about the risks of self-medicating must be promoted among both teens and their parents. Schools and communities should offer resources and programs that teach stress management techniques, healthy coping mechanisms, and provide professional support when needed. By fostering an environment that emphasizes understanding, compassion, and proactive intervention, we can guide our teens away from the dangers of self-medication and towards healthier ways of dealing with life’s challenges.

Here are some of the dangers of teens self-medicating to deal with stress …

  • Addiction Development: Teens are at risk of developing addictions to the substances they use to self-medicate.
  • Worsening Mental Health Issues: Self-medication may mask underlying issues, leading to more serious mental health problems.
  • Physical Health Problems: Unregulated use of substances can cause serious physical health concerns, including liver or kidney damage.
  • Legal Consequences: Depending on the substance, teens could face legal consequences, affecting their future prospects.
  • Poor Academic Performance: Self-medication often leads to decreased focus and energy, resulting in a drop in grades.
  • Damaged Relationships: Substance misuse can strain relationships with friends and family, leading to feelings of isolation.
  • Increased Risk of Overdose: Lack of medical oversight might result in an overdose, which can be fatal.
  • Impaired Judgment and Decision Making: Substance abuse can impair judgment, leading to risky behavior and poor decision-making.
  • Hindrance in Emotional Development: Self-medication can hinder the emotional growth and development that are crucial during teenage years.
  • Potential for Gateway to More Dangerous Substances: Starting with seemingly benign substances might lead to experimentation with more dangerous drugs, escalating the risks further.

Why Are Some Teens Self-Medicating to Deal with Stress?

Self-medication is a popular coping mechanism among the general population, from adolescents to the elderly. The popularity of self-medication as a so-called maladaptive coping mechanism is also one of the reasons that it’s often considered a potential cause for substance use issues among people with serious anxiety and mood disorders, and one of the reasons there is so much overlap between people with mental health issues and substance use problems. 

The reasons why self-medication is popular aren’t very complicated: it works, to a degree. You can feel better after a drink or two or after a smoke, or something stronger. It’s much faster and often even cheaper than going to therapy or spending the time and energy needed to seek professional help. 

The drawbacks far outweigh the positives, though. Alcohol use, especially long-term alcohol use, can significantly increase anxiety symptoms. Marijuana use, while rarely addictive, can leave a lasting impact on the brain, impairing cognition, memory, and motor skills. 

These substances affect the brain by encouraging the release of feel-good chemicals, among other things. These can help take your mind off an encroaching problem or overwhelming situation, be it the midterms, an imminent breakup, the loss of a family member, or a particularly bad bout of depression. 

And while some teens do rely on prescription medication to self-medicate, that too is a bad idea. 

Using a prescription drug that hasn’t been prescribed to you can lead to severe adverse effects, depending on dose, concurrent drug use, and individual circumstances. Even something non-addictive like an anti-depressive drug can have serious side effects, especially if not properly monitored by a physician. 

Learning and applying healthy coping skills is important. But the operative word is healthy

Other Dangerous Coping Styles

Self-medication is one of the most common examples of a maladaptive coping mechanism, but it is not the only one, especially among teens. Teenagers who self-medicate may also be more likely to engage in other maladaptive coping mechanisms, such as: 

  • Unprotected/risky sex. 
  • Unnecessarily risky behaviors (drunk driving, parkour without safety precautions, handling a weapon). 
  • Illegal activities (theft, arson, vandalism, assault). 
  • Online gambling (easier to bypass age filters, such as ID checks).
  • Overeating and binging. 
  • Spending sprees. 
  • Self-harming without suicidal intent. 

Here at Visions, we often hear parents ask questions about their teen’s drug use, and how to differentiate between experimentation and a serious problem. Self-medication can be a common reason to turn to drugs. Here are some of the questions we hear often:

What are some healthier coping mechanisms that teens can adopt to manage stress? Coping skills need to be individualized, but there are some general ones that are often applicable to most teens. These include exercise, art, and constructive problem-solving. However, even healthy coping skills can be driven to a dangerous point. The dose makes the poison. In exploring different coping mechanisms, it’s also important to recognize that sometimes, it can be hard to be consistent about self-care, and outside help becomes necessary – whether that’s through friends and family, or therapy, or both. 

Can self-medication lead to addiction in teens? It can, though it doesn’t always do so. Some teens might go through an exploratory phase with drugs as part of their individual development. Experts agree that this can be normal. But when a teen’s behavior becomes increasingly disruptive and problematic because of their drug use, it’s a sign that they need outside support to help prevent a full-blown substance use issue. 

Is medication an effective coping mechanism for stress? Medication is not a coping mechanism. It should be a prescribed treatment for a specific, targeted issue, and requires a consistent back-and-forth between patient and physician to remain effective. If your teen is struggling with their social or academic responsibilities, they shouldn’t look towards medication as a solution to their problems, especially without the guidance of a doctor. 

How can I convince my teen to seek help? Sometimes, talking to your teen about how they feel and hearing them out can be a good first step towards convincing them to talk to a therapist or a psychiatrist about what they’ve been going through. If they refuse to consider treatment time and time again, you may want to talk to a professional about your options for intervention. 

Self-medication is often a red flag that something may be wrong. If you’re worried about what your teen is going through but aren’t sure where to begin or how to proceed, get in touch with us at Visions today


Some teens self-medicate to take the edge off, while others turn to drugs and alcohol because of thoughts of depression, severe anxiety, or post-traumatic stress. Whatever the reasons, self-medication should always be treated seriously. Identify the warning signs and seek treatment for self-medication and teen drug use here at Visions Treatment Centers. 

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