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Why Do People Use Drugs? The Relationship Between Emotions and Addiction, pt. 5: Fear

Why Do People Use Drugs?

The Relationship Between Emotions and Addiction, pt: 5: Fear

by Thaddeus Camlin, Psy.D.

image depicting the relationship between fear and addictionThis week fear is the topic that continues our in-depth exploration of each core emotion. Why do people use drugs?  Often times, people use drugs to assuage fear and alleviate anxiety.  In healthy doses, many researchers consider fear to be the most vital and motivating emotion.  In excessive doses, fear fuels much dysfunctional, disabling, and destructive behavior.

Missed last week’s post? Learn about the relationship between addiction and disgust here.

Normal, healthy fear prepares and empowers us.  Physiologically, fear arouses muscle tension, perspiration, stomach butterflies, and dry mouth.  Fear primes the release of adrenaline and readies us to run, fight, or freeze.  Running, freezing, and fighting help ensure our survival, so the roots of fear lead ultimately to a fear of death.  With its purpose firmly grounded in survival, fear is in some ways biologically prepared, and thus, it is a window into our evolutionary history.  For example, house spiders induce more fear than driving 70mph on the freeway even though driving is far more dangerous.  Our emotional evolution has not quite caught up with our social and technological evolution.  Non life-threatening stressors like being late for work result in far more anxiety than they deserve.  In the case of fear, our emotional evolution has struggled to keep up with our social and technological evolution.

As fear struggles to contend with rapid human lifestyle advancements, it often becomes overgeneralized, excessive, and disordered.  Avoiding fear is the surest path to disordered fear.  Avoidance of fear is a core characteristic of many prominent anxiety disorders.  PTSD, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and phobias are all rooted in avoidance of feared stimuli. Although a lively debate continues, many researchers agree that anxiety is a state of undirected arousal following the perception of threat. In other words, anxiety is avoided, unresolved fear.

The brain’s methods of processing intensely fearful experiences often result in persisting problems if left unaddressed.  When we experience a scary and/or traumatic event the brain first appraises threat. The information about the threat is then encoded and represented on an analogical (associations), propositional (facts/interpretations), and schematic (related threats) level in our mind. Because trauma-related information does not fit with our current understanding of self and reality, our brains struggle to integrate trauma-related information into our existing models of self and world.

Researchers propose that most anxiety and trauma related symptoms result from the brain’s struggle to integrate trauma-related information.  The brain does not stop trying to integrate information until it is successful.  So lingering, unintegrated information from a traumatic experience is repeatedly appraised with all current incoming sensory information, which results in constant activation and reactivation of fear. The continuous activation and reactivation of fear from untintegrated traumatic information results in intrusive thoughts, nightmares, panic, and adaptive but potentially problematic efforts to stay safe (e.g. hypervigilance and avoidance). 

Avoidance gives fear more power. Fear is only healthy when armed with the courage to face it. Thus, in order to heal, progress, and grow, we must make our fears our agenda.  Not addressing our fears shrinks our world.  When fear motivates avoidant actions we build isolating walls around ourselves and our hearts to protect us from future pain.  Brick by protective brick we sever our lifelines and the very actions intended to protect us eventually become our ruin.  There is no love in fear. Identifying and targeting specific fears is often a vital component to overcoming traumatic histories and all the potential problems that stem from them like PTSD, generalized anxiety, phobias, panic disorders, and substance use problems.

Learn more about how disgust, sadness, and anger play into patterns of addiction.

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