Having a loved one with an addiction can be challenging and frustrating. You may feel as if you try everything you can to help them recover, but they continue to relapse to using drugs. While it may be difficult for you to understand, the reality is that individuals with addictions use drugs and alcohol to cope with some sort of emotional pain in many cases. Knowing this can help you to support your loved one on their journey toward recovery.
Addiction and Emotional Pain
Experts have poured a significant amount of time and effort into researching risk factors for addiction, and they have consistently found a link between substance abuse and emotional pain. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), people who live with mental illnesses like depression may use drugs to self-medicate and relieve their symptoms. When someone experiences emotional pain from depression or anxiety, drugs can temporarily numb the pain and block out negative symptoms.
Still, drugs are likely to make mental health even worse in the long term because they will take larger quantities to provide the same desired effects. Over time, as someone develops an addiction from prolonged drug abuse, they may only feel happy when under the influence of drugs, and the negative consequences that come with addiction can cause mental health to deteriorate even further.
The Link Between Trauma and Addiction
Another factor that can contribute to emotional pain and addiction is the experience of trauma. As the American Psychological Association (APA) explains, trauma occurs when a person is subjected to a shocking event, such as an accident or sexual assault. When people attempt to cope with trauma, they may struggle with unstable emotions and physical symptoms like headaches. For some people, the effects of trauma may be so severe that they develop post-traumatic stress disorder. This mental health condition produces symptoms like anger, flashbacks of the traumatic event, and a feeling of being disconnected from other people. Drugs and alcohol may provide a way of coping with these symptoms.
Unfortunately, the link between trauma and addiction has been found to be strong. In fact, a study that included over 500 people revealed that exposure to childhood trauma, in the form of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, was linked to cocaine use. The authors of the study concluded that there is a strong relationship between childhood trauma and substance use disorders, providing additional evidence that psychological pain is a risk factor for addiction.
Are Physical and Emotional Pain Related?
It is clear from the research that individuals with addictions are likely to struggle with psychological pain or tension, especially in the form of mental health issues or trauma. If it is difficult to conceptualize this idea of psychological or emotional pain, it may be helpful to learn about the relationship between physical and emotional pain. Interestingly, both forms of pain activate specific regions of the brain. For example, research has shown that when someone experiences emotional pain from grief, areas of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, cerebellum, and thalamus, become activated. Some of these areas overlap with brain regions that become active when a person experiences physical pain. This suggests that emotional pain truly does hurt, and a person needs treatment to overcome this type of pain.
Physical and emotional pain may be related, and in some cases, addiction can result from physical pain. For instance, consider that people may be prescribed opioid pain medications to treat chronic pain or relieve pain following surgery. As NIDA has warned, these medications can lead to addiction, even when people take them under a doctor’s care. Shockingly, 80% of people who use heroin began with prescription pain pills, highlighting that physical pain can also increase a person’s risk for developing an addiction.
How to Cope with Emotional Pain
If you or a loved one is living with emotional pain, counseling can help you develop healthy ways of coping, so you do not turn to substance abuse to alleviate your negative emotions. Other ways to cope with emotional pain include the following:
- If you are trying to help a loved one cope, reach out and offer a touch, such as a hug, a squeeze of the hand, or a pat on the shoulder. A recent study found that when people recalled emotionally painful experiences while holding their significant other’s hand, they felt greater levels of comfort.
- Reach out for support. If you’re dealing with emotional pain or trying to help a loved one, take time to talk. If you’re the one living with the pain, don’t be afraid to share your feelings with a family member or close friend. When supporting a loved one, be prepared to listen and offer a non-judgmental ear. Sometimes, sharing your feelings with someone else and putting words to them can help you to begin healing.
- Get your body moving. Physical activity is a natural remedy for emotional pain. Researchers have discovered that people who get minimal physical activity are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, and stress. Over the long term, regular exercise can help you to cope with distress. If your loved one is struggling with emotional pain, invite them to go for a walk or take them to your favorite yoga class with you.
Ultimately, if a person shows symptoms of a mental health condition like clinical depression, professional intervention is likely warranted. There is no shame in seeking treatment, whether in the form of therapy, medication, or a combination of the two, to overcome psychological distress from a mental health disorder.
The Bottom Line
Behavioral health experts have established that emotional pain and addiction are intertwined. In some cases, psychological distress can literally hurt in much the same way that physical pain does. Knowing this, it is important to keep in mind that they may be trying to cope with some sort of pain when a person develops an addiction. Even if your loved one has a mental health issue but does not turn to drugs to cope, they are likely to be very much in pain. If you or a loved one is living with an addiction or a mental health condition, Mission Harbor Behavioral Health is here to help. With locations in Santa Barbara and other Southern California communities, MIssion Harbor offers several levels of care and can treat both adolescents and adults. We also provide several treatment tracks, including mental health, substance abuse, and a working professionals program. Contact us today to learn more.