Out-of-control stress can come from many sources. It can come from financial stress (1) because you’ve just lost a job or because you can’t pay your bills. And it can come from emotional stress because your relationship or marriage is falling apart. In fact, out-of-control stress – a state where you are in a state of constant agitation – can arise from almost any type of life crisis. Either situation could lead to a cycle of depression and addiction.
Unfortunately, even when the crisis is over; when things completely collapse and we have a chance to start over, the stress doesn’t end. Unlike, say, a gazelle that calms down after it has escaped a lion, human beings have long memories. Unless we find some way of snapping out of these low moods, usually through therapy, we are more than likely to experience a downward spiral, which can lead to coping mechanisms like drug and alcohol abuse (2).
The Downward Spiral
Although the financial crisis may have resulted in our staying with family until we can sort things out or the relationship crisis resulted in a painful separation, we don’t get back to normal again. We feel like a ship that has just been through a storm, our sails are torn and there has been heavy damage to our vessel. While we are still afloat and the seas have calmed down, we are now not as robust as before.
Unless there has been some sort of miraculous event that saved us from the jaws of defeat, we human beings don’t handle a crisis well. We are a highly intelligent species and because we have such elaborately developed brains and nervous systems, we don’t forget what happened or forgive ourselves or others easily.
The Emotional Roller Coaster
While the threat may have been resolved in one way or another, we now experience grief. We are not only shaken by our close call with disaster, but we brood over the possibility of it happening again. We also feel embarrassed, humiliated, and chagrined at how we reacted and how badly we may have handled the crisis.
When grief is prolonged because we rehearse the devastating event again and again, it seems to settle into our nervous system. We have not only lost confidence in ourselves but also our belief in the goodness of life. Life appears hollow and meaningless. We have lost our innocence and our hope. This feeling that we can’t cope with life and that the world is a dangerous place creates a sense of resignation, helplessness, and depression.
The Onset of Depression
Over time, our confused thoughts and desperate feelings settle into what psychologists call depression. If this depression goes untreated, it will probably get worse.
While negative experiences may trigger a bad mood, we may also get depressed for no reason at all. Depression becomes a sort of free-floating depression rather than a reactionary depression to negative experiences. As a result, we may feel depressed when we get up in the morning and at the end of an unproductive day.
Since we have now resigned ourselves to a state of sadness, things begin to get worse for us. We fail to perform well at work. Our relationship with family and friends begins to turn sour because we don’t have the patience to deal with small irritations. Eventually, this may escalate into other problems: financial problems, health problems, and intimacy problems.
Depression is the emotional reaction to a loss of any kind. Since depression itself is so debilitating, we often try to numb it out, and the most common way we do this is through an addiction.
Addiction as Self-Medication
The reason we get addicted to anything from drugs to alcohol to substance abuse is because it causes a state change. The addictive substance numbs our pain as effectively as an anesthetic. For a brief time, we forget. While our emotional pain does not dissipate, our awareness of it decreases while under the influence. Since this form of self-medication creates the illusion that we are no longer hurting, it’s easy to see it as a solution.
Unfortunately, when the influence of the drug or alcohol wears off, we are back to becoming acutely aware of how bad things are. Consequently, we repeat the mind-numbing abuse again and again. Since our body gets used to the dosage, we have to keep increasing the dosage to feel the same type of relief.
Although we have found a way to mitigate the emotional pain, our new friend now shows its dark side. We begin to feel the side effects of our toxic medication.
If continued, this abuse eventually results in either a health or behavior crisis. In the case of a drug, for example, we might overdose; or, in the case of alcohol, we might get a DUI for dangerous driving. Once again, things begin to spiral out of control and, this time, the dagger that stabs us is in our own hands.
Breaking Free from Addiction
The only way to break free from addiction is by asking for help. By the time we are addicted to anything, we have lost our will to become effective change agents because “drugs change the brain in ways that make quitting hard” (3). Outside help and expert intervention is essential to arrest the momentum of our new downward spiral.
Group and individual therapy, as well as orchestrated self-care routines, help us face our demons, fight our depression, and overcome our cravings to numb out through an addiction. Therapy helps us face the world again with courage.
If any of the symptoms described in this article are affecting you, please take the important first step of asking for help. Nothing in your life will improve until you do.
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