Emotional pain can become an addiction. A negative feeling, such as anger, worry, grief, fear, or depression, can become so habitual that you cannot live without it. There are physical as well as mental reasons for emotional pain addiction.
When a person is continuously stressed by emotional pain, there are subtle changes in the body that create a dependency on stress-related chemistry. Changing habitual patterns of pain can be as difficult as giving up an addictive substance, such as nicotine, alcohol, or even heroin. The emotional pain addict unconsciously seeks out situations that are sure to result in pain. A history of prolonged, negative, stressful relationships is usually symptomatic of emotional pain addiction. The feelings of love and pain are so frequently associated that they become one and the same. Loving unavailable people and staying in intolerable relationships, for example, are signs that love and pain have become intertwined. There are many such pain-linked feelings in the repertoire of pain addiction. Understanding the physiological part of emotional pain addiction can make breaking these patterns easier.
The Physiology of Pain Addiction
On a physical level, the addiction is not really to pain, but primarily to free-flowing endorphins that accompany the pain. Endorphins are a hormone-like substance that the body releases whenever a pain or injury is experienced. They are very similar in structure and effect to the opiates, like heroin and morphine. Endorphins are pain-killers. When you stub your toe you feel a sharp pain, immediately followed by numbness, which accompanies the anaesthetizing endorphins. The feeling of numbness associated with endorphin release is not unpleasant and, in fact, can be an almost euphoric sensation. People who exercise vigorously are familiar with this feeling.
All strain on the body yields endorphins. Emotional stress, like physical stress, leads to strain. If the strain is constant, the body sends a continuous stream of endorphins, which results in a dull (and barely noticeable) anesthetic effect. When endorphin flooding is part of everyday life, the senses are actually deadened. Workaholics experience this, but just as in the toe-stubbing example, the feeling can be somewhat pleasant.
With sustained endorphin release you can still feel emotions, but only if they are intense, such as anger, rage, sorrow and fear. These trigger further endorphin release, which can lead to further emotional numbing. And once you become used to living an endorphin-filled existence, it is hard to give it up. With so much pain-killing substance running through your body, there is a sense of security that makes you feel safer in the world. Itís a shield inside the body that protects you from subtle feelings that are more difficult to block, like tenderness, vulnerability, and love.
Changing the Pattern
Once a person is addicted to pain, breaking the habit takes considerable strength. It also requires external support. The unconscious craving for stress and pain drives the isolated pain addict to make decisions that are based on need rather than wisdom. Unfortunately, emotional pain addicts do not usually have supportive relationships. They tend to gravitate towards partners who become a source of pain. Friends, family, and professional counselors are usually the best source of help. It is important that the support persons understand the inherent difficulty of withdrawal from pain addiction. If psychotherapy is used, it is helpful that the therapist be familiar with addictions and brain chemistry. Dynamic interventions seem to be the most effective approaches; they include Gestalt Therapy, the Intense-Feeling Process, and Bioenergetics.
Unfortunately, there are currently no Pain Addicts Anonymous or Pain-anon meetings, so it is up to friends, family, and professionals to help. But their effectiveness is limited if they do not grasp the true nature of pain addiction. Acknowledgment, encouragement, patience, and nurturance are the essential tools. Criticism, anger, and provoking guilt do not help the pain addict. On the contrary, they drive the pain addict deeper into the addiction.
Overcoming emotional pain addiction can take a long time. To the pain addict, a life without pain is completely unfamiliar. There are frequent reports of a frightening void that yearns to be filled when pain is no longer dominant. In many ways itís like being without drugs after years of dependency. The goal is to replace stress with relaxation, chaotic relationships with supportive ones, and self-deprivation with self-nurturance.
It takes about six months to allow the system to function without the need for constant pain. The work, however, is not as difficult as it may seem, because positive changes are felt along the way. Life is filled with color instead of grayness, joy instead of dullness. Grace replaces tension, and a personís natural beauty unfolds, in some cases for the very first time.
If you would like to learn more about this topic, there are copies of a radio broadcast audio tape entitled ďPain and Dullness,Ē which is available by calling 212-757-4488. A Pain Addiction support group is also scheduled for the Fall of 1998.