Freudian psychoanalysis spoke of the Pleasure Principle, the simple idea that humans seek to maximize pleasure and reduce pain. When we don’t feel well, we might stand in front of our medicine cabinets and look for something to make us feel better. Either we’re suffering from an unpleasant feeling that we want to go away, or we’re searching for a certain pleasant feeling that we want to have. 

We might want something to settle our stomachs, relief heart burn or get rid of a headache. Or we might want something to help us to feel sleepy or more relaxed or more energized. These are some of the obvious and conscious ways that we self-medicate.

Searching to feel better

On a less conscious level, there are many behaviors which we often engage in toward the same goal—to ged rid of an unpleasant feeling or to create a pleasant feeling. We may use drugs and alcohol to manage our stress and anxiety or to help us flee from depression. We may drink and drug to lubricate our social interactions or to reduce inhibitions so we can have a good time. We may turn to comfort foods to address emptiness or loneliness. On the other hand, we may shun food in order to have a sense of control, accomplishment or mastery.

Some may rely too heavily upon sex hoping to feel desirable, lovable and worthy. Others may rely upon pornography or sex in order to reduce feelings of anxiety or inadequacy, or to have feelings of pleasure and excitement where otherwise there may be none. Some may spend too much money on gambling or shopping in an attempt to fill a need for recreation or to escape boredom. Others may hoard too much money in order to address an unmet need for security and safety. Deep down, we also might be trying to alter our moods if we are spending too much time and energy on work, social media or taking care of others.

The risks of self-medicating

There are two main concerns with the self-medicating behaviors and activities. The first is that they have a tendency to become addictive because they offer only a temporary relief which wears off quickly and never addresses the problem at the core. In fact, the underlying unmet need is kept hidden and away from consciousness. 

This leads to the second concern, which is that the self-medicating approach compounds the initial problem by keeping us from developing the skill sets we need to address the unmet needs. If we continue to self-medicate, we never learn self-calming skills, anger management skills, conflict management skills, dating and loving skills or skills to cope with depression and loneliness. And we also don’t learn that there is a healthy way to accept, within reason, the presence of pain and the absence of pleasure.

A better way

If you’re interested in addressing a self-medicating habit, consider asking yourself the following questions. What is the underlying feeling or unmet need I’ve been trying to address? What is the pain I’m trying to avoid or the pleasure I’m seeking? When do I remember first struggling with these feelings? (It usually goes way back.) Which self-medicating behaviors have I been using? These are the habits to try to let go of. What are healthier ways to address my unmet needs? Which skill sets do I need to learn? 

Keep in mind, many before you have struggled with the same imbalance of pain and pleasure in life. With the courage to change and the serenity to accept, many have turned their lives around.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Image courtesy of lauramusikanski/