Addiction as a solution to emotional pain

Addiction as a solution to emotional pain

August 8th, 2018 by Brandi Dixon in Health Experts
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By now, the seriousness of the substance abuse epidemic in the United States is clear. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) found in 2014 that up to 21.5 million Americans struggled with a substance use disorder. In addition, many people also struggle with process addictions, to such things as gambling, food, sex, pornography, use of computers, video games, use of the internet, exercise, and shopping. All of these behaviors, when used compulsively, provide rewards to the brain and encourage continued use. However, for many, compulsive use of substances or behaviors serves as a solution to underlying emotional pain.

         No one sets out to become addicted. It is often a progressive and gradual process that leads one down the path to ultimate reliance on a drink, drug, or behavior. And it often starts with uncomfortable feelings. Loss, trauma, broken relationships—all of these can lead one to want an escape, to feel better even if only for a little while. Initial use of a substance or process provides that. Unfortunately, the solution often becomes a problem all its own and blocks emotional resolution of the underlying pain.

           Trauma, as defined by the Department of Veterans Affairs, is "a shocking or dangerous event that you see or that happens to you." This type of experience can lead to a condition called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Some symptoms of PTSD include re-living the event, nightmares, and feeling overly alert or watchful. PTSD is often associated with war veterans who have struggled with painful experiences while in combat, but PTSD is also frequently diagnosed in civilians. In fact, approximately 7-8% of the U.S. population will have PTSD at some point in their lives. Most people who have experienced a trauma do not develop PTSD, but they may still benefit from therapy to process and accept the event. Given the intensity of these types of experiences and their continued intrusion into daily life, it is understandable that many people will begin to "self-medicate" in order to cope. 

            Not everyone who becomes addicted to alcohol, drugs, or compulsive behaviors has suffered major trauma or abuse. Genetics and environmental factors play a major role in addiction and should not be glossed over. However, we can be "feeling avoidant" without having suffered a major trauma as well.  When given a choice between dealing with stress or painful feelings, such as the loss of a loved one or the end of a relationship, many people can turn to addictive behaviors to "take the edge off."

               Those struggling with addiction also have emotional fuel added to the fire because of shame and guilt about the addictive behavior. They may feel ashamed that they have lost control, making it more difficult to talk to someone else about how overwhelming their "solution" has become. As contradictory as it may seem, these additional feelings of guilt and shame can further fuel use of the addictive behavior, as it's already been shown to be a tool for avoiding or suppressing feelings.

That being said, studies show that suppressing or avoiding our feelings doesn't work. In a study by Butler, Lee, and Gross in 2007, the authors found that suppressing emotion led to prolonged negative emotions. Because of this, it may be even more frightening to stop using the addictive behavior and face these feelings after this snowball effect has taken place.

However, facing and accepting the feelings in a supportive environment is precisely where hope for recovery lies—both from the addiction and from the underlying emotional issues. There is compelling evidence that sharing our difficult or painful feelings lowers their intensity. In a study by UCLA in Psychological Science in 2007, scientists found that naming and describing our feelings decreases activity in the brain's "alarm system" and increases activity in the area of the brain associated with controlling behavior and processing emotions. Through facing and naming our emotions, they lose power over us. 

If you or someone you love is suffering from addiction to substances or behaviors, there is help and hope. Talk to your doctor or go to,, or to find treatment options in your area today.  If you have concern about yourself or a loved one, contact Focus Treatment Centers at 423-888-0516 for a complimentary assessment or visit us at  


Focus Treatment Centers staff can be reached at 423-888-0516 for a complimentary assessment or visit


Trauma, as defined by the Department of Veterans Affairs, is "a shocking or dangerous event that you see or that happens to you." This type of experience can lead to a condition called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).