Substance abuse and addiction begin with pain.

Emotional pain may come because of mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Relationships and personal setbacks can lead also to emotional pain. Plus, traumatic memories may haunt us, causing emotional pain.

Instead of seeking help to manage these problems, we may try to numb the pain by self-medicating with alcohol or drugs. This attempt at a solution may seem to work for a while. But eventually, it just complicates the issues and leads to more… pain.

Take a moment to consider the cycle of addiction and how to fight it.

Numbing the Pain with Substances: A Dangerous Tool

Numbing ourselves with alcohol or drugs seems like a good idea at first. We distance ourselves from the event or the emotions we don’t want to deal with.

Self-medicating lets us disconnect. While numb, we can suppress the traumatic memory. Stoned or drunk, we can relax, feel less depressed. We don’t have to face our terrors. Maybe we can even sleep at night.

Sedatives like valium and Xanax ease anxiety and stress. Heroin and narcotic painkillers change the way our brains perceive pain and limit the emotional toll it takes. Stimulants like cocaine and speed create a false sense of control.

But, in the end, they don’t solve our emotional pain. And it grows.

Eventually, ongoing use leads to dependence and addiction. Our “solution” traps us in an endless, self-destructive cycle. While our healthy coping strategies decline from lack of use.

Of course, this dependency bothers us, but we don’t want to admit it. We try to hide it, instead.

Day after day, though, our anxiety grows. And the more it grows, the more alcohol or drugs we need.

Other people begin to notice, and our inner shame and pain and loss of self increase. The use and abuse increase, too. Addiction takes hold. So, now, we have to fight addiction as well as our pain. The end is worse than the beginning.

Why the Problem Gets Worse

Addiction complicates the original condition and creates new problems. Some drugs trigger or accelerate mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and mania.

Dependency means we don’t get the same effect from using as we did at first, so we use more and more. It becomes harder and harder to tell which symptoms are caused by the drug and which by mental illness.

Our physical health takes a hit. In time, serious consequences like heart problems, even organ failure, attack us. And, most seriously, heavy drug use can lead to fatal overdoses.

The biggest irony? Substance abuse makes the lows of emotional pain even worse. The solution has become a cause.

How to Fight Addiction

People sometimes resist the opportunity to fight addiction because they aren’t ready yet. Some even believe you must hit “rock bottom” before you can take those steps.

Fear of going through withdrawal is part of the resistance. More subtly, you may feel that there’s still more pleasure than pain in getting high. In the race to fight addiction, being willing to quit is your first hurdle.

Maybe the biggest bar is the fear of change. Because to fight addiction, you’re going to have to change—your behavior, your thoughts, your beliefs, and perhaps your friends.

First things first

But nothing changes until you stop abusing. You have to decide to fight addiction. But it’s usually not something you can do on your own. Get help.

First, you need to detox, with medical supervision. Then, to stay sober, you need more help. Find a peer support group. Plus, you may need professional addiction treatment.

Once you’re sober, you need someone to screen for mental health problems and mood disorders, like depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder. In other words, you need to deal with the real source of your emotional pain.

Then, you have to work hard to change unhealthy habits and instill positive ones. You’ll need help here, too, from professional counseling and peer support groups.

Counseling will also help you with aftercare when you have setbacks. Above all, you’ll have to learn to cope with your painful emotions without numbing. That means you’ll have to find new ways of thinking about and responding to your experiences, emotions, and memories.

Some helpful hints:

  • Find some buddies. You’ll need friends, family, loved ones to support you—people who understand and are rooting for you.
  • Learn about addiction, about the causes of your emotions. Read books and articles. Listen—to your peers, to the experts.
  • Be accountable: to a group, to a friend, to yourself.
  • Identify your triggers and danger zones. Avoid places, situations, and people that may tempt you to slip.
  • Distract yourself from the urge to use. Find activities to take your mind off temptation. Work out. Start a project.
  • Keep a record of your progress. Write things down. Keep a journal.
  • Help others. You’re an expert now, on fighting addiction, on dealing with pain. Use that experience to help someone else. It will pay dividends in your own recovery.
  • Remember that tomorrow is another day. Keep working toward your goal. Fighting addiction is a long-term project.

The bottom line

If you’ve been using substances to numb your pain, take the first step. Decide to fight addiction! Once you’re sober, work on finding the causes of your emotional pain. Resolve to change what needs changing. Your life may be in the balance.