Addiction to Pain

By Suzanna Hanna

One of the questions I get over and over again is…

Why would I consciously or unconsciously put myself in situations that ultimately cause me pain?

The truth is, it’s addictive.

We are hardwired to gravitate toward what is familiar. If you have experienced abandonment, abuse, rejection or any other painful event, it can become so deeply ingrained in your cellular memory that you unconsciously seek out experiences that will attract what feels familiar. It can become so habitual that it feels like you cannot live life without it.  Depending on our experiences, feelings of love and pain are so frequently associated that they become one and the same.  For example, loving unavailable people and staying in intolerable relationships, are signs that love and pain have become intertwined.

It can become physically addictive too. 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.

On a physical level, the addiction is not really to the pain per se, but primarily to free-flowing endorphins and adrenaline that accompany the pain.  Endorphins are pain-killers. The feeling of numbness associated with endorphin release is not unpleasant and, in fact, can be an almost euphoric sensation. 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. It’s a shield inside the body that protects you from subtle feelings that are more difficult to block, like tenderness, vulnerability, and love.

Once a person is addicted to pain, breaking the habit takes considerable awareness and courage.  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. Overcoming emotional pain addiction can take a long time.  To the pain addict, a life without pain is completely unfamiliar.  In many ways it’s like being without drugs after years of dependency.  You can feel lost and extremely uncomfortable without it. The goal is to replace stress with relaxation, chaotic relationships with supportive ones, and self-deprivation with self-nurturance in small baby steps that will allow for sustainable change.
The truth is we ALL suffer from pain addiction to a point. But the more we re-wound ourselves by unconsciously gravitating toward painful patterns, the more addicted we become. The key is to build and create reparative experiences while staying aware of self sabotage since they take us away from the familiar into unknown territory.

As Joseph Campbell reminds us, the cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.

Walking with you,