When feelings become too overwhelming, the easiest thing to do may seem like a solution. Many who use substances and have process addictive behaviors (like shopping, hoarding, working to excess, gambling and overeating) do these things to manage their painful emotions.
Feels Good At First
Although short term gain may be in evidence, the activity and symptoms may get worse over time. It often feels like an endless loop tape with no way to cut through. The distractive properties of a pleasurable activity allow the brain to calm down when it is hyper-stimulated by life circumstances. The emotional provocation may stem from simple daily encounters, to full blown PTSD. For a person with an anxiety disorder, being asked to give a presentation at work may feel like it is on par with a childhood trauma, since the brain and body are unable to differentiate between the two and react as if they are one and the same.
The self-medication hypothesis (SMH) posits that the drug of choice becomes appealing commensurate with the emotion itself. According to a study cited in Psych Central, “Researchers found that over 12 percent of individuals who met criteria for an anxiety disorder and self-medicated with alcohol later developed an alcohol use disorder. Only 4.7 percent of those who did not self-medicate later develop an alcohol use disorder.”
When Tricia Stopped Using Food to Self-Medicate
Lost Weight Also Meant More Emotion
A unexpected side effect of this adjustment in Tricia's routine and intake has been that she is acutely aware of emotional peaks and valleys. Not prone to anxiety or depression, she has noticed heightened feelings of disquiet and deepening sadness. Although it is distinctly uncomfortable to be in that state, Tricia expressed relief that she is allowing herself to feel rather than repress emotions. She knows that ‘this too shall pass,’ as she engages in healthier habits.
When Going Through Hell, Keep Walking
Harry had used heroin to “forget my troubles.” When he stopped using, he noted that the first few days in withdrawals were “a living hell.” No surprise there. Ultimately, though, he was able to push through the ordeal and come out on the other side. The hardest thing was his emotional pain. This is very common. Harry struggled with the idea of sitting with the emotional depths and darkness to which he plummeted without the drug. With the help and support of family, friends, and the 12 step community, he persevered. He began to accept the fact that feelings could come and go, and he could live with painful feelings even if he didn't like them.
Ways to Meditate and Not Medicate
Meditation is one powerful tool to keep calm and let the brain relax so that feelings are eased and the need to self medicate with a substance or activity is not so powerful. It may seem difficult, but meditation is not always sitting cross-legged on a cushion, although that is one option.
Meditation Can Be Many Things
Meditation can also look like dancing, drumming, listening to music, chanting, singing, drawing, writing, walking in nature or practicing yoga. Any healthier outlet that provides distraction and calm offers the same service as a substance or behavior addiction. And turning to any of the above activities is useful to reduce the desire to self-medicate.
Reach Out Recovery Exclusive By Edie Weinstein