Why Do People Use Drugs? The Relationship Between Emotions and Addiction, pt. 3: Sadness
Why Do People Use Drugs? The Relationship Between Sadness and Addiction
by Thaddeus Camlin, Psy.D.
This week sadness is the topic that continues our in-depth exploration of each core emotion. If you ever wonder, ‘why do people use drugs?’ sadness is often an answer. Many of the most painful emotions (e.g. grief, bereavement, mourning) and debilitating disorders (e.g. major depression) are rooted in sadness. Humans often put forth valiant efforts to avoid and ward off sadness and its related emotions. However, sadness is not inherently negative and efforts to avoid it are often destructive because sadness is crucial to the human experience.
Sadness generally features an appraisal of loss or failure (e.g. a person, place, unattained ambition, valuable object, or an ideal/value). The loss or failure can be a temporary separation and its focus can be on a significant other’s loss as well as oneself. The prototypical time-focus of sadness is retrospective but it can vary between past, present, and future, and it can even be imagined.
Sadness has multiple functions and adaptive features. Socially, sadness has been shown to strengthen bonds and lead to altruistic behaviors (we’re more likely to sacrifice our time and help someone if we feel sad for them). Personally, sadness can result in increased self-focus as individuals review priorities, goals, and fulfillment of role obligations in ways that foster growth and stability.
Recognizing that one is not fulfilling goals and role obligations can increase motivation to take corrective action. However, substances are often turned to in times of sadness because they are an excellent source of fast-acting relief. When substance use becomes the predominant corrective action taken to cope with sadness a feedback loop is created that perpetuates a pattern of not fulfilling role obligations, which in turn reinforces depression.
When it comes to sadness, Western culture has egregiously failed its people. Western culture promotes stoicism in the face of adversity and sadness, which inhibits the propensity for individuals to ask for help and for others to take care of people who are hurting. In Western culture, sadness is erroneously associated with weakness. In reality, showing sadness requires one to be vulnerable, and vulnerability requires strength and courage to face the fear of being hurt. It is safer to be angry than it is to be sad. Enduring the pain of sadness is a hallmark of resiliency, not a branding of infirmity.
Because anger protects from the vulnerability of sadness, sadness is often converted into anger. Poet Philip Larkin pointed out that, thanks to Western culture’s reinforcement of the conversion of sadness into anger, our “first coronary is coming like Christmas.” Heart disease is the top cause of death in the United States. It is not a stretch to wonder then if the vulnerability of sadness might be a mediator to anger’s coronary corrosiveness.
Suppressing sadness restricts social bonding by making it less likely that one asks for and receives needed help. Suffering alone is not good for humans. When the truth of our emotional pain is tucked safely within our deepest recesses the terror of loneliness inevitably ensues. When we suffer our wounds in isolation our reactions trouble and damage both the people we love and ourselves. It is an especially important challenge in Western culture to acknowledge our wounds and the resulting sadness that spills into our daily lives in order to heal ourselves and contribute to our world in a positive way.
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