Addiction and Emotional Pain: Are they Related?

         Addiction does not develop from just thrill-seeking recreational drug and alcohol usage.  What many people do not understand is that low neurotransmitters and addiction are interlinked, which can be caused by chronic stress, childhood trauma, abusive relationships, and depression.  What even neuroscientists do not fully understand is the link between addiction and emotional pain as it relates to the unconscious brain, which processes approximately eleven million pieces of information per second.  In fact, most addictive behaviors occur outside of conscious awareness, which processes information at a much slower rate (approximately forty pieces of information per second) and becomes overwhelmed when the unconscious part of the brain is filled with painful memories, fears, and other forms of emotional turmoil. Dependence can even be exacerbated by conditions such as a person who is suffering from ADHD and Addiction or PTSD and Addiction among others.

         The majority of the brain’s neuronal communication responses are stored within the unconscious.  The unconscious mind is stimulated during every millisecond of life, yet these stimuli occur much too rapidly and numerously to be processed in any sort of logical manner.  The unconscious mind expresses itself through feelings, habits, and bodily sensations, which are all created by electrical impulses and chemical reactions throughout the nervous system.  The unconscious mind of an addict is ruled by chaos, whereas the conscious mind seeks order and logic.  By establishing effective communication between conscious and unconscious processes, an addict can learn how to accept and to work through emotional pain. 

Link Between PTSD and Addiction

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          Individuals with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may self-medicate with substances as a frantic effort to regulate their emotions and to manage distressful thoughts and situations.  PTSD and addiction may develop as survivors turn to substances as an escape from chronic feelings of depression, helplessness, rage, panic, and fear of abandonment. Furthermore, the toxic baggage of PTSD survivors can create such intense feelings of self-loathing that the PTSD survivor feels unworthy of seeking support from others. This often results in social isolation through substance usage, which causes even more toxic shame and severe problems with many daily personal, work, and academic tasks resulting in PTSD and addiction to spiral. 

          PTSD survivors may also experience cognitive difficulties, such as constant battling against a harsh inner critic, frequent and uncontrollable dissociation, a very fragmented sense of identity, and a self-perception as defective or flawed, due to their trauma.  PTSD and addiction must be understood as a coping mechanism for the long-term emotional pain and persistent difficulty with daily stress management skills.  Survivors of prolonged trauma tend to emotionally “shut down” and to experience self-doubt on a daily basis.  In sum, the emotional and cognitive repercussions of trauma create a very fertile breeding ground for addiction.   

Borderline Personality Disorder and Addiction

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          Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) often coexists with an addiction.  BPD results from childhood trauma, being raised in a dysfunctional family environment, experiencing physical and emotional abuse, and experiencing loss or abandonment.  Symptoms of BPD include great difficulty with emotional regulation, drastic mood shifts, an unstable sense of identity and self-worth, impulsive thoughts and behaviors, and an intense fear of abandonment, loneliness, and rejection.  Due to great difficulty with emotional regulation, those with BPD are likely to rely upon substances as a means of being “numb” or creating a false sense of control over life experiences.  They may also use substances as “social lubricants” for alleviating a chronic fear of rejection.

          Individuals with a dual diagnosis of BPD and a Substance Dependence Disorder require extensive training in emotional regulation skills, such as clarifying one’s emotions, allowing oneself to fully experience these emotions, and redirecting unwanted emotions during situations requiring focus and mental stability, such as at work or with one’s children.  Emotional regulation is very difficult for BPD individuals and plays a key role in overcoming an addiction.  Emotional regulation can create a very strong and pure sense of compassion for oneself and others.  This skill can also create a valuable sense of self-discipline and empowerment.  It is a learned process of decreasing vulnerability to painful emotions by reframing, not reacting to, these emotions.

Keep reading below to elaborate on the infamous ADHD and Addiction link. 

ADHD and Addiction

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         Attention Deficit with Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurological disorder which can create emotional and social challenges.  ADHD symptoms include being frequently overwhelmed with academic, work, and/or parenting responsibilities, being perceived by others as irresponsible or unmotivated, feeling obstructed or confused in daily thought processes, and feeling “out-of-place” in social situations.  The cognitive symptoms of ADHD are a poor attention span, forgetfulness, impulsivity, and difficulty completing daily tasks and staying focused on conversations.  Thus, communicating in the workplace may provoke much anxiety and shame, due to frequent forgetfulness of deadlines and instructions, as well as difficulty processing and remembering information necessary for completing daily tasks.  All of these symptoms cause ADHD and addiction individuals to be at a higher risk for abusing substances. 

Neurotransmitters and Addiction

         One final consideration about the link between addiction and emotional pain is the impact upon neurotransmitters and addiction on daily functioning.  Traumatic experiences can exacerbate PTSD and addiction as it can alter the production of important neurotransmitters, particularly serotonin and dopamine, which allow an individual to feel joy and motivation in daily life.  Dopamine has been increasingly found by neuroscientists to be essential to achieving and maintaining motivation which is required to work toward significant life goals.  Dopamine is released when one’s needs are being met and enables an individual to feel satisfied when accomplishing significant tasks.  When an individual is unable to experience pleasure or to regulate daily stressors, it is tempting to escape through the use of dopamine-surging substances, such as alcohol, stimulants, and other recreational drugs.  Physical activities and other forms of accomplishment cause the brain to produce dopamine.  However, those with a neurotransmitter and addiction imbalance, are extremely susceptible to becoming dependent upon substances which artificially create pleasure and a sense of well-being. 

          A major goal of addiction treatment is learning how to improve one’s distress tolerance, which is the ability to accept and to manage painful emotions during difficult situations. Especially troubling with those with ADHD and addiction with poor impulse control, distress tolerance skills are extremely helpful to develop and achieve, largely through radical acceptance, which is the process of learning how to accept disturbing life experiences.  Acceptance allows an individual to visualize and to implement more effective behaviors in the situations which trigger disturbing emotions.  Acceptance includes identifying and embracing one’s disturbing past situations, identifying how others may have contributed or are contributing to these situations, and observing one’s reactions to these situations.     

Road to Recovery from Addiction

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         Recovery from addiction and emotional pain must be viewed as a lifelong “work in progress” and as a courageous journey in facing the unknown.  The goal is to better equip oneself to accept the things which cannot be changed.  Addiction and PTSD and Addiction and ADHD among other conditions can be overcome by creating and following a structured and mindful set of cognitive and behavioral coping strategies.  These learned strategies can provide a stable and comforting “blueprint” for an addict’s new narrative.  Well-being during recovery requires the motivation to continue learning, especially from the setbacks.  As an individual moves beyond the cycle of addiction and creates a new, empowered, wise, and humble narrative, a sense of self-worth and purpose will evolve in one’s daily relationships and activities.  Although this is a difficult path, the result is the creation of a different quality of life. 

Did you enjoy this segment on neurotransmitters and addiction? Keep reading to learn about Neuroplasticity.

Accepting your past self-reflection survivor of trauma

New Age Psychiatry

       New Age Psychiatry offers licensed and certified psychiatric services through virtual telehealth appointments within the state of Florida. We understand the complexities that come with mental health disorders and symptoms, and we will work hard to help you manage your condition. We can certainly go into more detail about the link between addiction and emotional play and the impact of neurotransmitters in addiction.

         New Age Psychiatry is a modern mental health service in Florida that approaches addiction and other mental health issues with compassion and forward-thinking techniques. New Age Psychiatry offers certified psychiatric services through telehealth appointments in Florida. Some of the highlights of the New Age Psychiatry approach include:

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  • Telehealth Services – Our psychiatric telehealth services are available throughout the state of Florida and can assist you in psychiatric care through counseling and medication management

Contact us on the web for a virtual appointment. If you prefer to use email, you can reach us at or call us today at (877) 769-5206 for more information.