“Not Why Addiction, But Why The Pain”

–Gabor Maté

Addiction | Bilingual Clinical Psychologist | Beautiful Mind HKThe Function of Addiction

The word “addiction” brings up uncomfortable feelings in many. Society has conditioned us to associate “addiction” with “being bad, out of control, indulgent, irresponsible.” The list can be quite a long one. However, addictions, like other forms of defenses, serve a function.  It is a form of coping. The user is using a substance or an activity (be it drugs, alcohol, sexual activity, eating, gambling, online gaming, or what have you) to escape from feelings that otherwise will overwhelm them.

This song In the Arms of an Angel might capture the soothing function of drugs for users who have become dependent on them.  To heavy users, an addictive substance/activity is more like an “angel” than a “demon,” because the substance is psychologically holding them.

As Gabor Maté said, substances of abuse are “painkillers.”

Be it food, sex, drugs, gambling, or alcohol, the user is trying to cope with very difficult emotions by numbing or escaping from them.  Someone might say, “I keep stuffing myself up with food so I don’t feel.” Or “The sensation of a win/substance/sex hitting my system puts me in a different place where dreadful feelings stop.” Of course, as those who struggle with such condition know, this temporary solution creates a crippling problem further down the road.

Addiction Can Happen to Anyone

Brad Pitt: “I can’t remember a day since I got out of college when I wasn’t boozing or had a spliff, or something,” Pitt recalls. “And you realize that a lot of it is… you know, pacifiers. And I’m running from feelings. I’m really, really happy to be done with all of that….[I] don’t want to live that way anymore.

Read about a mother’s journey to recovery and her fight against addiction.

Why Typical Responses Don’t Help

If you or a loved one (e.g., your kid) is struggling with addiction, understanding where they are emotionally is the first helpful step. Blaming, shaming, and punishing aren’t helpful, because these negative responses create more of the negative emotions from which users are trying to escape in the first place.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, contact us to see how we can help.

What Is The Solution?

The real antidote to addiction is connection. As scientists have shown us in social experiments, rats that had a well-connected fulfilling social life wouldn’t get addicted to heroin even when it was made available to them. Only rats that lived isolated lives without communal stimulation would continue with heroin use.

On Recovery: Some Steps To Consider

Some might find these concrete pointers useful.

If isolation and difficult feelings are the root cause of addiction, what can we do to help us and our loved one? Here are more suggestions, extracted from

Join a support group

Explore issues that the addiction may be covering up.

Therapy can help you or a loved one to work through difficult emotions and acquire new coping skills.  Whatever your situation or concerns, contact us and we will talk through your situation.

Keep track of your triggers

Note what is prompting your need to use. (E.g., “Do you feel an urge to drink when you feel criticized? Do you tinder whenever your self-worth feels low?  Do you look forward to your evening fix when stressed?”)

Look for the function your addiction may be serving

For example, do you feel you have a relationship with food/drugs/alcohol, when connecting with others feels very hard or scary?

Learn to experience emotions rather than avoid them

Mindfully observe how emotions and sensations arise and pass away is a way to learn how to experience them safely.  Learn more.

Journal about your feelings

To get uncomfortable emotions off your chest, instead of ruminating over stressful events.  Writing helps stop looping.

Johann Hari: addiction is not what we think it is