Addictive substances and physical symptoms
For those of us with substance use disorders, the concept of emotional addiction may seem too abstract a concept to believe or understand. Drug addiction is something concrete and physical. We have evidence of our substance abuse in the physical act of taking a drink, snorting a line, shooting up, or inhaling a substance.
We feel physical pain leave our bodies when the drug takes effect. We feel the pain return and the craving grow in our bodies in a very tangible way. What others might call a “mental health issue” we experience as a physical allergy coupled with a mental obsession.
Family members without the addiction, even if they’ve known the person for years, likely won’t understand the craving experience. And in fact, even addicts won’t understand unless they take the first step in admitting that what they experience as addiction is something they are powerless over and seek help to be delivered from it.
Admitting powerlessness may bring an immediate dose of positive emotions, such as relief, peace in the body, and a sense of the world and our lives, momentarily widening. These emotions, like their negative counterparts, have a physical sensation as well. It is with this simple observation that we begin a discussion on what it might mean to be addicted to emotional pain.
Negative thoughts and chronic pain
Negative thoughts, when not shared with others, can create neurological feedback loops in the brain that affect the nervous system. The thoughts that carry the most negative power are thoughts that induce feelings of fear, shame, rage, and frustration. And if one lives with these thoughts, one can find themselves in chronic pain without knowing it, and this chronic pain manifests itself as any number of mental health disorders.
Addictive substances in this context serve as emotional pain medication to numb or alleviate the negative feelings and the emotional responses in the body that fosters a felt sense of pain.
Anyone who has experienced heartbreak or the death of a close friend or family member can attest to that feeling of pain in the chest that accompanies the immense sadness of losing someone. Shame manifests itself with negative self-evaluation, motivation to quit, and feelings of pain, exposure, distrust, powerlessness, and worthlessness and might cause body aches. Paranoia is a negative emotion that pushes people away from us and may cause headaches. Emotional insecurity causes us to feel insecure about our place in society and might cause physical pain in our bodies. The experience of rage, which involves a strong, uncomfortable, and non-cooperative response to a perceived hurt or threat, drives one’s limbs into contortions and actions that feel physically out of rational control and may also cause pain in our head and body. This mind-body connection is normal and even instinctual for human beings.
Emotional pain and instincts
Our animal instincts produce stress hormones that affect our brain chemistry for good reason–as our ancestors often faced traumatic events on such a daily basis that having a system to respond to the risk factors of surviving this planet was essential to preserve the lineage of the species. Using the same brains as our ancestors running for their lives, what we call the mental health condition “anxiety” may have been called “surviving” a couple of thousand years ago.
A lot of the painful emotions our addictions are designed to shield us from our emotions so painful we fear they may kill us. It sounds extreme, but especially for those of us who grew up in homes where feelings were not expressed or in which the expression of feelings was punished or resulted in a form of abandonment, it was essential (since we were young children who could not care for ourselves) for many of us to stuff these feelings to receive the care we needed to survive. So this strategy of emotional pain avoidance was developed as the limbic system—the part of your brain involved in behavioral and emotional responses related to survival–was developing.
Different kinds of emotional drugs
In light of the recent focus on opioid use disorder, research has been done on how the opioid systems in the brain flood the body with “feel-good” chemicals to create a craving for more of those chemicals. We can use this research to understand what some call the inner drugstore. These states of feelings can reward the body with certain feel-good chemicals like dopamine and serotonin or stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. In this case, the “substance of choice” that produces these responses in the body is not something one ingests physically but a thought pattern that activates an emotional response in the body which in turn produces a release of endorphins or other chemicals in the body.
Without tools to treat emotional pain, many of us find addictive substances to do the job for us. The addictive substances could be legal or not, as we know now how powerfully addictive prescription painkillers and pain medication are, especially opioid addiction. But drug use is not the only way to treat emotional pain.
It may seem counterintuitive, but just as in substance abuse disorder, emotions that seem to cause harm can become emotions one depends on to numb emotional pain. Shame, for example, is a powerful emotional habit that arises with a cluster of negative emotions which also can create a release of endorphins. Shame is the belief in the mind that there is something fundamentally wrong with you. To believe that something is fundamentally wrong with you creates a distorted sense of control.
The critical inner voice communicates shame often in the second person: “You are worthless. You can’t even do that right. You don’t really matter.” As this happens, the unconscious mind thinks, “If something is wrong with me, then there is something I can do about it,” even if that something is just feeling the cluster of negative emotions that induces an out-of-body experience similar to a drug state. The behavior that often results from the thinking patterns of shame may manifest itself as a self-harm addiction.
Healthy love vs love addiction
For those of us familiar with love addiction, this is another emotional habit that can foster a chemical addiction to hormones created by the brain we associate with “love.” This word is in quotes here to distinguish healthy love from love addiction. Healthy love increases feelings of peace, safety, neutrality, and detachment in each partner over time. There is support and a distinct feeling that one can exist without the other person, but that one chooses to spend time with or invest energy into that other person’s life from a place of desire that is free from attachment to “returns.”
A love addiction increases feelings of anxiety and higher doses of stress the more one thinks about the object of their attraction. No amount of emotional intelligence can stop these feelings of anxiety and craving for attention from a person from increasing. The love addict finds themselves in emotional pain and possibly an abusive relationship, seeking pain relief from the object of their attraction so that even a good time with the person cannot be fully enjoyed because of the addict’s desire to continue receiving the brain chemicals that convince them they need more from the person, similar to how a chemical addiction works.
Treating emotional pain the natural way
Once we can recognize the ways we may use emotional pain like a drug, the next step is to seek help treating it and to find healthier ways of pain relief. If our emotional drugstore has not progressed to the level of a non-substance addiction, then it may be a simple matter of plugging into classic forms of health maintenance, similar to physical therapy for our bodies. Classic forms of health maintenance are a long-term process with subtle changes that may not bring feelings of euphoria but is the most important step in maintaining a healthy lifestyle to avoid health problems.
Professional help through talk therapy is one form of emotional pain treatment. It often seems like hard work, and many of us would rather make external changes like changing jobs or moving to a different place, but oftentimes it is the “inner work” that addresses the root cause of the feelings of low self-esteem underneath all of our emotional reactions.
Cognitive behavior therapy is a very popular form of talk therapy in the United States to treat anxiety disorders and other mental illnesses. As different strategies work for different people, cognitive behavior therapy is one way to increase the likelihood of emotional relief. In cognitive behavioral therapy, a patient is asked to begin to recognize their thinking patterns and how these thinking patterns affect their patterns of behavior. It also helps patients to identify the use of a coping mechanism in response to a triggering event.
The simple recognition of patterns of thinking can allow for enough space for someone to change behavior and reduce risk factors in making decisions based on fear, shame, rage, or frustration. The less one makes decisions from those places, the more likely they are to begin to experience positive feelings about their behavior, which creates a reward system for healthy behavior. This practiced over time in daily life, can change brain chemistry by creating new neural pathways that reward a healthy relationship with decision-making.
Treating emotional pain the spiritual way
Discussions about emotional pain and emotional pain addiction can be complex and confusing. It is both a gift and an obstacle that modern scientific inquiry has provided so much information about our brains. On the one hand, increased emotional intelligence makes for increased awareness of thinking patterns that create destructive behavior. On the other hand, many of us find that awareness is not enough and may even seem to exacerbate the emotional pain that comes from engaging in demoralizing behavior we feel incapable of controlling.
Groups that discuss emotional pain and relief from it include Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (or SLAA), Al-Anon Family Groups, Codependents Anonymous (or CoDa), and Adult Children of Alcoholics & Dysfunctional Families (or ACA).
Because emotional pain addiction and substance abuse addictions are related so deeply, 12-step groups that normally seem to be only associated with the substance of choice also discuss problems related to emotional pain, too.
There is help for emotional pain
If you are seeking relief from emotional pain and you don’t believe you have a substance abuse disorder, emotional pain groups may be able to steer you in the right direction. The most important thing to remember, if nothing else, is the fact that so many groups exist, that this article has been written for you to read right now, and that there are many other unseen forces at work protecting and caring for you.