Caregivers and Addiction


March 3, 2023

Caregivers and Addition

Caregivers and Addiction: How Caring for Others Can Create Addictive Behaviors and How to Stop Them

As a family caregiver the focus is often on everyone around you, which can lead to your needs or struggles going unnoticed. Often, caregivers turn to alcohol and medications to help manage the stress both physically and emotionally. 

Causes of Caregivers Addiction

Common stressors include: 

Social Isolation & Loneliness
As a caregiver, you may spend most or even all of your time focused on someone else’s needs. You’ll then have little time to spend with friends and family. As a result, your relationships may suffer. When you can’t maintain your relationships, you face a high risk of loneliness. Loneliness is a common trigger for substance abuse because alcohol and other drugs may temporarily numb lonely feelings. Mental health can worsen over time.

Depression & Other Emotions
Although caregiving can provide a sense of purpose, it can also cause depression. According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, between 40 to 70 percent of caregivers have depressive symptoms, such as:

  • sadness
  • hopelessness
  • loss of interest in activities

In many cases, depression stems from the loneliness described above. It can also be related to the sadness you may feel as you watch the person you care for suffer.

Along with depression, some caregivers report other distressing emotions, including:

  • anger
  • frustration
  • guilt
  • helplessness

All of these feelings can lead someone to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol.

Stress & Anxiety
Most caregivers have numerous duties, from cooking meals to handling doctor’s appointments and administering medication. This level of responsibility can cause extreme stress. When left unmanaged, stress can lead to anxiety, a condition characterized by persistent and excessive worrying. Other symptoms of anxiety may include irritability, sleep problems, and trouble concentrating. These symptoms can make it difficult for you to fulfill your caregiving duties, which can then increase your anxiety. Like isolation and depression, anxiety makes you more likely to abuse drugs or alcohool. 

Access to Addictive Medications

Many caregivers are responsible for administering medications. Some caregivers sneak certain medications for their own use. 

For example, a person with severe pain may need prescription opioids, such as OxyContin or Vicodin. The person’s caregiver may use these pills to feel relaxed and euphoric, or “high.” Unfortunately, opioids pose a high risk of addiction when used without a prescription. 

Other prescription medications that a caregiver might use include:

  • stimulants, such as Adderall and Ritalin, which treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy
  • benzodiazepines, such as Xanax and Klonopin, which treat anxiety, insomnia, and seizures
  • barbiturates, such as Nembutal and Seconal, which treat anxiety, insomnia, seizures, and headaches

As with opioids, these drugs pose a high risk of addiction when taken without a prescription. 

Dangers Of Caregiver Substance Abuse

When you abuse substances as a caregiver, you face some serious threats, including:

An Inability To Care For Yourself
When you regularly abuse a drug, it becomes your main priority. You may find it difficult to think of anything else, including basic activities like showering, eating, and getting enough sleep. When you don’t care for yourself, you increase your risk of physical and mental health problems. To temporarily numb these problems, you may start abusing drugs more frequently. In other words, you’ll experience a vicious cycle where substance abuse harms your health and poor health makes you abuse substances.

An Inability To Care For Others
Drugs impair important mental functions like judgment, awareness, and memory. Thus, they can prevent you from caring for others. For example, a caregiver who’s intoxicated or hungover might:

  • forget about caregiving duties, such as cooking, cleaning, and administering medication
  • accidentally give the wrong dosage of medication
  • forget about doctor’s appointments
  • not hear a person’s cry for help during an emergency
  • struggle to call 911 or seek medical help during an emergency

Abuse Toward Others
As a caregiver, you must show significant patience and understanding. When you’re drunk or high, however, you may become impatient, irritable, and even aggressive. These issues can increase your risk of verbally or physically abusing the person you’re supposed to care for. 

Signs Of Caregiver Substance Abuse

A caregiver who’s struggling with substance abuse may:

  • withdraw from family and friends
  • lose interest in activities they once enjoyed
  • take home other people’s medications
  • hide medications
  • become irritated easily 
  • experience sudden weight changes
  • experience financial problems
  • feel unable to complete daily tasks without using drugs or alcohol


 You may not think there is time to focus on your own health, but this isn’t true. The first step is to recognize the problem. Ask yourself the questions below.

  • Do I self-medicate with alcohol or drugs after hearing bad news?
  • Do I self-medicate when I feel hopeless about my loved one’s diagnosis or state of being?
  • How often do I use drugs or alcohol?
  • Am I increasing the dosages of medications prescribed to me in order to help me cope?
  • Do I feel comfortable mixing prescription medication with alcohol?

If you feel alcohol use or drug use has affected your daily life, it is important to talk with your doctor so you can get help as soon as possible. When left untreated, substance abuse often leads to substance use disorder (also called drug addiction), making you feel unable to control your substance use despite negative consequences. 

Sources: Phoenix House Florida; Arkansas Behavioral Health

We hope this information is helpful to you in the important work you do as a family caregiver.
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