The relationship between a developed addiction and our emotions is complex. Our emotions can both contribute to substance abuse and be negatively impacted by it. That is to say, a person may turn to substance abuse in order to suppress or avoid unwanted emotions, or they may find that the emotional centers of their brain have been altered by substance abuse. The complexity of this relationship means that those helping addicts need to consider carefully the role of emotions in both addiction and recovery.
Our emotions can be complex, overwhelming, and unwelcome at times. Particularly intense and acute emotions can be a struggle to process, respond to, and to manage. This is a normal human experience, but for those who have not learned how to endure this challenge, or who refuse to go through it, suppression or avoidance of the emotions becomes the ultimate goal. In such scenarios, addiction becomes a serious concern.
Many professionals have noted that addictions may develop as a means either to escape pain or pursue pleasure. In fact they are often both present in a single move – a shift away from pain is a shift towards pleasure. So, for example, Tara struggled with terrible social anxiety. The thought of being in a crowd, interacting with new people, having to socialize would send her into a near full panic-attack. But in late high school she learned that with a fair amount of “lubricant” she could slide in and out of social activities without fear. Alcohol became her go to means of navigating social settings. Steven, on the other hand, began to see alcohol as a means of escaping the well of loneliness that grief had created. After the death of his wife he would drink himself to sleep nearly every evening. Going home to his now empty house became so overwhelming that he would stop at the bar and wouldn’t go home until he had a sufficient buzz. In both cases the addiction started in response to unwanted emotions and in lieu of an appropriate means of processing those unwanted emotions.
Over time the use of substance to avoid problem emotions becomes a cyclical trap. Drug use creates problems, which draw out negative emotions, which abusers refuse to engage, and so use substances to avoid. The negative emotions and substance abuse begin to reinforce one another. Learning to manage emotions in a responsible way, then, becomes a vital component of recovery. So, Carlo DiClemente has written:
Thus the need to cope with negative emotions seems to be a driving force moving individuals toward dependent use of the substance or engagement in the behavior. The more individuals use drugs or behaviors to relieve stress or noxious feelings, the more problematic becomes the use. (Addiction and Change, 98)
The inability to navigate my emotions in healthy ways tempts me to develop addictive habits in their place. Helping individuals struggling with addictions, then, must include a means of helping them understand their emotions, respond to them in Biblically faithful ways, and see even unwanted emotions as an opportunity to glorify God.
On the other hand we must also recognize the ways in which substance abuse impacts our emotional responses. Drugs produce chemical reactions in the brain, the physical response to drugs and alcohol is real and we need to be sensitive to this and honest about it. In particular many drugs can increase the level of dopamine in the brain, which is the pleasure neurotransmitter. Some drugs, like meth, can flood the brain with dopamine 1200 times more than normal, creating an overwhelming sense of euphoria. Over time the brain adapts to these changes and no longer produces dopamine in the normal fashion. This has direct bearing on a person’s emotional responses. Many people assessing the process of recovery begin to conclude that if they are ever going to find sobriety it will mean surrendering any hope of happiness. Their logic is understandable, but good friends and counselors can help them to see that healthy functioning can be restored over time. In many cases it will feel like a denial of the brain’s “reward center,” but only at first. Encouragement, compassion, and care will be key to helping sustain a person through this difficult stage of recovery.
In Psalm 51 we read about David’s realization of sin and, particularly, the impact that this sin had on his emotional state. David prays, “restore to me the joy of my salvation” (v. 12). David’s sin had created serious problems in his life. He had become so hard and calloused that he was willing not only to sleep with another man’s wife, but to have that man killed through political maneuvering. His emotions were damaged by sin, and now here in Psalm 51 he was grieving all that had happened. He could not simply change how he felt, he couldn’t simply flip a switch and find joy again. He knew he needed God’s help in engaging these undesirable emotions. He wanted joy again, but only God could give it. So, he prays.
An addict’s emotional problems are real, but they are not beyond God’s ability to heal. As counselors and friends seek to help others navigate this difficult terrain it will be important to hold out this hope, both for ourselves and for those we help. It is important because it reminds us that God is interested in redeeming all of us, and He is gracious, kind, and all-powerful. God can help us learn to manage our emotions for His glory and our good.
Over the next several weeks I plan to explore the relationship between addiction and various emotions more carefully. We will explore the ways addictions impact or develop from various emotions, including: depression, anxiety, paranoia, shame, perfectionism, and pleasure. I hope you will check back each week to engage in this discussion.