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Emotional Pain: A Root Cause of Addiction

By June 1, 2022Recovery

Emotional Pain as a Root Cause of Addiction

Emotions are “feeling” states and classic physiological emotive responses that are interpreted based on the history of the organism and the context (Koob, 2015).

Addiction can be an effect of dealing or not dealing with emotional pain. We can become addicted to the emotional pain itself as addictive cycles repeat.

Outlined are the points we walk through in this article about Emotional Pain:

The cost of emotional addiction is that you live at the mercy of feelings provoked by circumstances (whether initiated by happenstance or foreordained by unconsciously imprinted negatively scripted behavior) and your perceptions of these events (Steinburg, 2021).

Negative Impressions on One’s Mental Stability

Feelings of emotional pain are (Sheidman ES, 1998):

  • Guilt
  • Anguish
  • Fear
  • Panic
  • Angst
  • Loneliness
  • Helplessness

Feelings of emotional pain can also be defined as (Bolger EA, 1999):

  • ‘Feeling broken’
  • Loss of self
  • Disconnection
  • Critical awareness of more negative qualities
  • Being wounded

Bolger would describe a sense of loss and awareness of one’s own role in emotional pain as essential characteristics to feeling the effect of emotional pain (Bolger EA, 1999).

The Domino Effect of Unprocessed Emotions

These feelings can become so habitual that the behavior becomes addictive. Emotional behavior is different than ‘feelings’ of emotion because now the emotion has become a behavior (Koob, 2015). There are subtle changes in the body that create a dependency on stress-related chemistry where a person is continuously and unconsciously craving emotional pain (McCorry, 2007).  This chemistry and craving can create an autonomic reaction which can be sweating, execrated heart rate, or other stress responses in the body (McCorry, 2007).

Emotional pain can cause emotional distress. Common warning signs of emotional distress include (defined by SAMHSA):

  • Eating or sleeping too much or too little
  • Pulling away from people and things
  • Having low or no energy
  • Having unexplained aches and pains, such as constant stomachaches or headaches
  • Feeling helpless or hopeless
  • Excessive smoking, drinking or using drugs, including prescription medications
  • Worrying a lot of the time; feeling guilty but not sure why
  • Thinking of hurting or killing yourself or someone else
  • Having difficulty readjusting to home or work life

How to Heal Emotional Pain

Spiritual well-being is the opposite of emotional pain and practicing it can address emotional blockages. Negative emotional states drive negative reinforcement. Positive emotional states drive positive reinforcement. “Act better than you feel” can be a good example of emotional wellness and what may be needed to begin healing emotional pain.

Emotional pain and spiritual well-being influence one another and can overlap which makes having a connection to something greater than yourself is the best way to begin the emotional healing process. Ask questions:

  • Does my suffering have meaning?
  • What are my connection to others and the world around me?
  • What is my purpose on this Earth?
  • How can I feel most free?

Turn Your Emotional Pain into Emotional Intelligence

Daniel Goleman, an American psychologist and author, who helped to popularize emotional intelligence, defines it as “the ability to identify, assess and control one’s own emotions, the emotion of others and that of groups.” There are five key elements:

  • Self-awareness: Ask the questions to invoke curiosity. It means looking to gain insight and understanding of yourself, the part you play, and the role of others. Being self-aware is having a clear mind without emotions controlling your reactions or the outcomes. Meditation can help increase self-awareness.
  • Self-Regulation: Checking in with yourself and how you feel. It is about making clear-headed, thought-out decisions. Impulsive decisions should be avoided to begin having a better sense of what is good for you and being able to recognize that. Dialectical behavior skills can help with emotional regulation and reduce stress levels.
  • Motivation: The ability to work toward your own goals while using the anticipation of the reward that goal brings to drive your ambition to achieve it. Motivation interviewing techniques with a therapist can help strengthen this emotional intelligence trait.
  • Empathy: The ability to emotionally understand the other person’s feelings and putting yourself in their shoes to see a new perspective. Check out our article on forgiveness, and how to find empathy for others as well as how to forgive yourself.
  • Social Skills: Cultivating healthy relationships with those around you. Deeper connections to others can lead to vulnerability, authenticity, and positive experiences. Self-help groups like AA meetings are great for building relationships. These groups and meetings help strengthen skills against addiction and are evidence-based practices, such as Community Reinforcement Approach.  We also have a private community of support through our membership portal or on Facebook.

By focusing on strengthening these five traits, emotional pain begins the process of healing. Identify new, healthy coping mechanisms in this process will also aid in our self-healing.

Where Does Emotional Pain Come From?

Emotional pain is born from an unmet need. The quick solution is usually met with an unhealthy coping mechanism. Emotional pain can go hand in hand with neurological factors. They feed off of each other and can feel even more rooted. Over time, both of these root causes create a stronger addictive cycle as it repeats and the anticipation/reward/withdrawal is conditioned.

Emotional pain usually comes through in the form of triggers. Especially for people who struggle with substance abuse as a coping skill. Those who have chronic relapses may be too overwhelmed to process and handle larger emotional issues.

Triggers at the Surface

Dr. Gabor Mate says triggers are something we shouldn’t be ashamed of because it is just an acknowledgment that we have suffered pain. We can use triggers to process our emotional pain. Through strengthening our emotional intelligence, processing and allowing the emotions to pass through us gets easier and more free-flowing.

Triggers can seem to happen abruptly. They feel intense because they are signs of avoided emotional pain from unmet needs. Looking into these triggers with kindness and curiosity allows us to move past it as something happening to us to something we can change. Download our free trigger tracker when you join our free 5-day course!

There are a lot of things that can trigger addiction or lead to cravings. It can be a specific person, place, thing, or event. There are triggers that exist around specific people like the parents or friends of the person in recovery, who can trigger them after many years of being clean.

The Crave Wave Will Pass

There is always an excuse for why you should do it but it is important to remember that these situations will only last for short periods of time. Once you self-regulate and the wave of emotions passes, then you are back in the swing of your recovery routine and feel at ease.

Blaming and resentment will occur when one is resistant to understanding their emotional pain triggers. Only when we learn to process past these feelings, will we reach forgiveness and gratitude. Once we understand the trigger within us, we have the ability to identify and work toward processing them.



As we discussed, addiction can be an effect of not dealing with emotional pain. In summary, emotional pain is a normal, natural response to something we experience. It is important to process emotions in a healthy way. Doing this will result in emotional intelligence.

With a spiritual approach and the right tools to retrain your brain – You have the power to transform your life and habits significantly. Satori Way is here to help set the stage with what is right for you, join us as a free member, and check out our 5-day course here!


Bolger EA: Grounded theory analysis of emotional pain. Psychother Res 1999;9:342–362.

Koob, George F. “The dark side of emotion: the addiction perspective.” European journal of pharmacology vol. 753 (2015): 73-87. doi:10.1016/j.ejphar.2014.11.044

Mark Steinberg, Ph.D. & Associates. Dr. Mark Steinberg. (n.d.).

McCorry L. K. (2007). Physiology of the autonomic nervous system. American journal of pharmaceutical education71(4), 78.

Sheidman ES: Suicide as psychache. J Nerv Ment Dis 1993;181:145–147.

Bolger EA: Grounded theory analysis of emotional pain. Psychother Res 1999;9:342–362.