Why Trying to Numb Emotional Pain With Drugs Makes the Problem Worse

One of the reasons that many people use drugs is to cope with pain, whether that pain is physical or emotional (or both). At times when emotional pain is overwhelming, all you can think of is, "How can I stop hurting?"

At these times, drugs, such as marijuana, painkillers, and alcohol can seem to be effective in reducing emotional pain. This includes opiate-based drugs, which are sometimes prescribed to people for the management of physical pain—which is exacerbated by emotional pain. However, there are several reasons that using drugs to try and manage emotional pain is not a good idea.

Understand That Drug Use Drives the Addictive Process

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Surprisingly enough, painkillers can actually make pain worse. By trying to escape your emotional pain through the use of drugs, you are setting yourself up for needing more of the drug once the effect has worn off - a phenomenon known as the rebound effect.

Drugs that numb emotional pain, as well as physical pain, tend to be addictive, both because of the physical dependence that builds up, and the need to keep taking the drug to suppress emotional pain, which exacerbates your physical pain. In fact, learning how to deal with your true feelings, no matter how unpleasant they seem, will liberate you from addiction.

Notice Emotions Tend to Worsen If You Use Drugs to Cope

If, instead of dealing with your feelings, you suppress them with drugs, they will tend to get worse rather than better. Take shame, for example. If you feel bad about something you did or didn’t do, and then you get drunk to suppress those feelings of shame, there is a good chance you will feel more shame for something embarrassing or ill-judged that you did while you were under the influence of alcohol, doubling the shame you feel the next day.

In contrast, facing up to your embarrassment, and resolving to understand what you did, and why you did, it will help you develop more compassion for yourself, so you beat yourself up less. It will also make it less likely that you will make the same mistake again—especially if your judgment is not impaired by drugs, so your embarrassment will probably decrease over time.

The Effect of Drugs Is Temporary

Although a drink or dose of opiates might seem to relieve your pain almost instantly, the effect will only last as long as you are under the influence. As soon as the drink or drug wears off, the emotional pain will come back, possibly worse than it was before. People can go for years cycling through the vicious cycle of pain, shame, disappointment, and more pain, before finally realizing the effect will always wear off, and you will be left with the feelings underneath. Some people never discover this.

Although escaping the pain through taking drugs might seem like the answer, the only way of truly escaping is by facing your pain and working through it.

What to Do Instead

The best thing you can do to avoid developing or worsening an addiction when you are struggling with pain is to deal directly with the emotions that burden you.

Healthy Ways to Deal With Negative Emotions

  • Read self-help books.
  • Join a mindfulness class.
  • Try yoga or meditation.
  • See a therapist or counselor.

There are many strategies that you can use for doing this on your own (and many great self-help books available), but if you need more support or guidance with this process, you may find that counseling helps. You can also join a mindfulness class, sometimes available at community colleges or through meditation and yoga groups.

If you seek treatment for an addiction, your therapist will help you to uncover and deal with the emotions underlying your addiction. If you can't afford or don't want to see a therapist, go to the library or bookstore and find a book to help guide you. Books on mindfulness work for any kind of emotional pain. Two good examples are Managing Pain Before it Manages You by M. Caudill, and Pain Relief Without Drugs: A Self-Help Guide for Chronic Pain and Trauma, by J. Sadler.

Get the Right Prescribed Medication for Your Condition

Sometimes emotional and physical pain is caused by a related condition, such as depression or an anxiety disorder. A number of physical conditions can also cause emotional symptoms, such as low mood, fatigue, and irritability, which can mirror those of depression. These are not "normal" emotional reactions and can be effectively treated with medications if properly identified. Antidepressant medications are not usually addictive, although anti-anxiety medications can be, and all should only be taken as and when prescribed.

While antidepressants are not usually addictive, they should not be stopped abruptly because of withdrawal symptoms.

Talk to your doctor if you don't feel you can manage your emotions effectively on your own, and they will be able to advise you about whether another kind of medication is right for you. This is much safer and more effective than self-medicating with drugs.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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