Think about a moment in your life that you wanted to bask in. You found a sense of peace, joy, or harmony that you wanted to fully take in and appreciate. Perhaps it was catching up and laughing with an old friend, perhaps it was feeling the warm sun shining down on your skin as you sat on a tropical beach, or perhaps it was the excitement you felt in your team winning the big game. When we encounter these moments, there is a natural tendency to want them to last. We want to appreciate what is happening for us here and now, while also doing what we can to hold onto these wonderful feelings. However, what happens when unpleasant feelings arise?
When feelings of anxiety, sadness, loneliness, and stress show up, we have a natural tendency in the opposite direction. We want to make them go away as they may feel unpredictable, uncontrollable, and unbearable. We want more of the “good” feelings and less of the “bad” ones. Makes sense, right? I mean, who in their right mind wants to feel anxious?
While there are a variety of things we can do to avoid these unpleasant feelings, a particularly common one resides in alcohol and drug use. The use of alcohol and other drugs triggers chemical reactions in our brains that numb unpleasant feelings and boost the pleasurable ones, thus, producing a sense of relief. However, this sense of relief is only temporary. Like all things, it does not last.
The substance wears off, the chemical reaction subsides, and those unpleasant feelings reappear. Well, what happens when these feelings come back? When that sense of helplessness or powerlessness sets in again? You might think about how drinking alcohol or using drugs had previously made those feelings go away and think, ‘Hey, that worked last time! Why not do it again?’ This makes sense. Humans are excellent learners. When we encounter challenges, we look for solutions. In this case, alcohol and drug use seems like an effective solution to this discomfort. When we regularly rely on use to navigate these feelings, we cross into addiction.
With time and repeated use, our brain chemistry changes such that our drug of choice may feel like the only escape from unpleasant feelings. However, as I had mentioned before, the unpleasant feelings will always return. They are unavoidable. However, as we continue using to avoid said feelings, we wander further away from our ambitions, integrity, and sense of purpose. As we do this, the feelings of anxiety, sadness, loneliness, and stress grow. What initially seemed like a sound solution, turns out to have been a misplaced solution.
By Jonathan Fricke, MA