A man holding his head with pain speaking to doctor

Can I be addicted to suffering?

Feelings control much of how we experience life. Emotions produce chemicals in the brain that can make us feel euphoric or incredible pain and suffering. My late-husband thought he was addicted to feeling bad. He knew his feelings of shame and unworthiness were making him physically sick, and yet – he couldn’t stop the ruminating thoughts that cycled through his mind, like a bad song on “repeat.” He would have periods of clarity that gave him hope; Hope of finding a cure to his addiction to negative feelings. Can a person be addicted to negative feelings? 

Let’s first discuss pain verses suffering. You may have heard the phrase, “Pain is inevitable; Suffering is optional.” Pain is something that all humans experience. It arises out of physical and emotional discomfort, loss or change in a world where change is constant. Therefore, pain is inevitable. Suffering happens when the mind focuses on pain to the degree that it ignores everything else. Suffering happens when the mind does not move past the pain. It ruminates and keeps the person stuck.

What about addiction? We normally think of being addicted to a substance, one that makes us feel good. But can people also be addicted to feeing bad? Can someone be addicted to suffering?


For two main reasons. 

1. Emotions release chemicals in the brain, and those chemicals make us feel something. These chemicals can be addictive in themselves, as you’ll see in the short list below. 

2. Humans are also creatures of habit. They are drawn to what is comfortable, even when the comfort is discomfort or painful. When a person feels shame, anger or inferior for long periods of time or repeatedly, that feeling becomes comfortable. Once it’s ingrained, we look for situations to repeat the feelings, because the mind is comfortable and drawn to what is familiar. This pattern continues until there is awareness of it, a shift in perception and a new pattern is created.

The Sanskrit word for this is samskara or conditioned pattern of response. Imagine a smooth slate of granite. Rain falls on the granite and creates a groove, an imprint. Once the imprint is formed, that pathway becomes the path of least resistance. The next time it rains, the water will follow the old path because that is the path of least resistance. Each time it rains, the groove will get deeper and deeper and become more ingrained. Our brain fires in the same way. Our thoughts follow the path of least resistance; they follow the path that was already created. 

Negative Feelings and their neurotransmitters

Norepinephrine is a hormone and neurotransmitter that is closely related to dopamine, a highly addictive neurotransmitter. Norepinephrine’s main role is to prepare the body for action by heightening a person’s senses to be on the lookout for danger. he body releases more norepinephrine during situations of stress or danger. It is one of the hormones released by the sympathetic nervous system,  the fight, flight or freeze response. Think of it as adrenaline for the brain.

Epinephrine, also called adrenaline is a hormone that is released in stressful situations and has powerful effects on the body that cause blood pressure to increase, anxiety, fear and restlessness. It gives the body the energy needed to run for its life. 

Now What?

If you suspect that you might be addicted to suffering, what can you do about it? 

  1. First, seeing this is a huge accomplishment and step in the right direction to living a happy, satisfying life. Awareness is the first step toward creating a new reality. This often happens only when the suffering has gotten so bad, that we cannot imagine living life this way anymore. This is an essential step, and one that needs to be recognized as a success. 
  2. Create a new pathway, a new route for the brain to take,  one that releases good feeling neurotransmitters. We don’t stop bad habits. We create new habits that better support the life we want to live. For example, say I’m addicted to feeling like a victim. I have a pattern of feeling like other people take advantage of me. After seeing the pattern, I then would create a new pattern of, say, both establishing and communicating healthy boundaries. 
  3. Repeat the new pattern continuously. 
  4. Be vigilant. Old patterns don’t go away. The new pattern must be repeated so often that it becomes stronger than the old one. 
  5. Check in daily with yourself to see where your successes are, and where you reverted back to the old feelings. Be compassionate with yourself. Never criticize yourself for falling short. It likely took decades to acquire the negative thought patterns, and will take some time and effort to change it. 
  6. This whole process requires being able to look at yourself honestly and objectively. It’s like cleaning out the fridge. You have to be willing to put your gloves on and look at all the stuff hidden in the back, rotting in the bottom and that grosses you out. There are no short-cuts. You have to be willing to see what does not work for you and be committed to getting rid of these patterns. 
  7. When fear and self-doubt creep back in, which they will, acknowledge them and then ask them to sit in the back seat while you drive. 
  8. Practice pausing. When we pause between stimulus and reaction, we allow for distance and release attachment to the feeling or the outcome. Freedom is in this pause. 
  9. Repeat the cycle over and over until the new habit is stronger than the old. 

It is not easy. The shift takes awareness, effort, courage and constantly recommitting to yourself, to be your best self. There will be setbacks and times you wonder, is it worth it? 

We have this life to live. There will be challenges, obstacles and successes. It can be miserable or amazing. It is a choice. Like all choices, you have to give some things up to gain in something else. We must be wiling to give up the comfort of the familiar and journey into the unknown. 

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