Emotional Effects of Addiction

Psychoanalysts in the 1960s came up with the notion that people often used addictive substances to medicate themselves when experiencing emotional pain. In subsequent years, many others have come to agree with this theory. Because of the pleasure pathway that addictive substances and behaviors can activate, the addict may initially feel relief.

Those very painful emotions that a person might try to numb or soothe with substances or compulsive behaviors may actually become intensified as time goes on. For example, if a man has a flask of alcohol hidden in his desk drawer at work to calm his nerves before an important presentation, imagine the anxiety of fearing he will lose his job if he's caught.

Or consider the woman who hides her feelings of loneliness with compulsive shopping. There might be a false sense of camaraderie gained from being in a crowded mall and conversing with salesclerks over purchases. However, the worry, fear, and shame of being discovered create a prison of loneliness for her that won't go away with unfulfilling purchases.

What is anhedonia?

Anhedonia is the inability to experience pleasure as one once did. Feelings become blunted and flat. Substance abuse and dependence can lead to anhedonia as the brain's pleasure circuit is damaged. An addict will often increase her substance use to try to regain her ability to experience pleasure and enjoy life.

Anger is another powerful emotion that often accompanies addictions. There are many possible sources of anger in this situation. An addict may perceive that life has treated him unfairly after experiencing a job loss, divorce, or financial setbacks, and use addictive substances or behaviors to try to soothe his anger. Anger may serve to keep others away so the addict can use substances privately.

You may well understand through your own experience that there are almost always other emotions beneath the anger. Common underlying emotions are fear, disappointment, and hurt. An addict may fear that she will not be able to live up to the expectations of others. She may feel disappointed that life has not gone the direction she wanted. Hurts inflicted by others, whether they are physical, emotional, or psychological, may be hard to manage and subsequently treated with addictive substances or behaviors.

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