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Addiction and Stress: The Gratification, The Danger, and The Escape

Neuroscience researcher, Melvin Conner, tells us that the human nervous system is conditioned by a subtle, but constant, state of stress. His findings indicate that the chronic internal state of the human nervous system can be best categorized as a vague mixture of anxiety and desire, best described by the phrase, “I want,” spoken with or without an object for a verb. This sense of craving, wanting, anticipating, preparing, or “leaning into the next moment”, often results in feelings of dis-ease, ungroundedness, insecurity, or subtle anxiety. In order to deal with these feelings, we often find ourselves participating in behavioral patterns that bring forth short term relief and help us quickly manage the stress in the nervous system. Drug and alcohol use is one of the most gratifying, and also dangerous, strategies to cope with this underlying stress.

The Gratification

Drug and alcohol use is one of the most adaptive and effective ways to regulate intense emotions in the here-and-now. By ingesting drugs and alcohol, we can, in effect, “reward” our brain and ease the discomfort that we feel rattling through our body. By engaging in drug and alcohol use, we can also soothe anxieties relating to work stressors, family relationships, and social interactions, allowing us to move through our day-to-day lives relatively unaffected by the very challenges that would ordinarily overwhelm us and our ability to function. In this sense, addiction can help us effectively cover up and mask our often messy and complicated emotional lives.

The Danger

Although drug and alcohol use is a great short-term solution for managing stress, it comes with two ultimate issues: 1. It’s temporary; and, 2. When you suppress or mask unpleasant emotions, you simultaneously suppress and mask pleasant ones. First, drug and alcohol use is a horribly ineffective way to manage stress in the long-term. Because the effects of drug and alcohol are temporary, the addict is forced to constantly work to maintain the desired state. Over time, the addict will forget how to access internal self-regulation and coping strategies, and the drug and alcohol use will ultimately lead to a higher degree of stress and anxiety—which the regular substance abuse was once able to overcome. Next, drug and alcohol use cannot selectively mask emotions. For example, when we use drugs and alcohol to “get rid of” discomfort—depression, anxiety, loneliness, stress—we are also covering up our capacity to take active delight in the more joyful, exciting, and creative parts of our lives. In turn, drug and alcohol use eventually dulls our sensitivity to our emotional lives, which is the very thing that connects us to what it means to be human.

The Escape

Once a person enters into treatment and into early recovery, we begin to develop healthy ways of coping with the stress in our lives. Stress, by definition, is a “lack of feeling safe.” The skills we learn in treatment help us attune to our emotional lives and find effective ways to feel safe, connected, and more at ease in our body, our families, work environments, and social interactions. Also, by connecting to a community of other persons in recovery, we are able to feel more validated in our recovery process, helping to reduce the usual comparisons, stigmas, self-judgements, and the too high expectations that often create feelings of shame, isolation, and despair. By beginning on the path of recovery, we make a commitment to reconnect to our emotional lives, learn to process our discomforts, and find a more balanced and compassionate response to life’s natural and steady stream of ups and downs.