The Rewards of Addiction—Short-Lived but Powerful

The rewards of addiction exist, or we wouldn’t begin our use of addictive substances in the first place. Some of us feel fortunate that we can progress in the illness without fast negative consequences. For example, one may have a high tolerance for great amounts of alcohol and feel pleased to be able to drink others ‘under the table’. However, as fun as that bravado is, it indicates one is progressing in the addiction faster than the ones who ‘can’t hold their liquor’. Such dynamics aren’t always so easily spotted, but we can be sure that the ‘benefits’ we enjoy aren’t all as wonderful as they seem at face value. These beneficial effects can cross many realms in our lives, leaving us with a wide spectrum of ill effects in the end.

The Emotional Rewards of Addiction

Of all the reasons to use an addictive substance, one of the most commonly cited is to self-medicate some level of discomfort or distress. For instance, emotional pain can respond quickly to intoxication, with an instant sense of relief. However, if one is truly self-medicating with intoxication, little else is apt to be done to remedy the original problem. And, when the intoxication episode is over, so is the reprieve from the problem.

Other temporary emotional rewards come from the use of addictive substances, too. One can ‘lubricate’ difficulties in a variety of ways: anxiety can be overcome, anger can be quelled, sadness can be alleviated; shyness overcome, and one’s fear of intimacy pushed aside… In fact, as use continues and becomes a primary coping strategy of life, addictive substances can become the chief go-to for emotional management of all types. If the mood needs lifting, or emotions need calming… an addictive process will tell us to go to the substance to help with any emotional need.

Many people who have lived with anxiety or depression for a long time say that they were in trouble when they first became intoxicated because intoxication was their instant cure for the bad feelings they had for so long. When relief is significant and so noticeable, people do become vulnerable to continuing on with substance use. Their rewards are too tempting to turn away from. This is one of the reasons people with anxiety or depressive conditions are so vulnerable to developing an addiction.

The same is true for people who have had traumatic reactions or lingering negative symptoms after a traumatic event like physical, emotional or sexual abuse. Such symptoms can be pervasive, affecting one’s daily life significantly, and doing so for prolonged periods of time. Some even suffer for years with flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, nightmares and distressful memories. If one discovers that intoxication suppresses such symptoms, he or she becomes vulnerable to continued use and the development of an addiction.

Additionally, people who have expressive problems—such as difficulty sharing their emotions—are vulnerable to substance abuse if they find themselves more expressive when intoxicated. Some even feel unable to express intimate emotions to significant others well unless inebriated. Again, this situation and any of the others above, will not be remedied with healthy coping strategies as long as a substance is used to cope.

The Mental Rewards of Addictive Substance Use

The mental rewards of addiction come through episodes of intoxication, too. What we commonly think of as thinking distortions are created in intoxication and reinforced by more periods of intoxication. Thinking distortions are the thought patterns and beliefs we have about ourselves, others and the world that are not wholly based on fact. Some examples of these that are common in substance abuse are:

  • Justifying one’s own negative behavior
  • Shifting blame/responsibility to others when one is responsible
  • Blaming others for one’s own choices
  • Using power plays to manipulate others
  • Minimizing problems
  • Making excuses for failed commitments, responsibilities, and bad choices

While all of these types of thinking patterns and beliefs are ultimately self-sabotaging, they can be beneficial in the immediate moment, especially when living in chaotic situations, and wishing to not make changes that require significant effort.

Other significant mental rewards of addiction can involve self-image. Those who have negative images of themselves that result in poor self-worth or other negative reactions such as self-loathing can find temporary relief in intoxication experiences. Intoxication can relax the negative self-reflection and self-consciousness that fuels a negative self-image. It can also give relief from the type of obsessive thinking that often drives these sorts of problems.

Other obsessive thinking that causes distress can also be temporarily relieved by substance abuse. Many with excessive worry, for example, are vulnerable to substance use, and to using regularly rather than tackling the underlying and original problem.

The Behavioral Rewards of Substance Abuse and Addiction

As with other types of benefits from using addictive substances, behavioral rewards are also temporary at best. Some of the most reinforcing aspects of intoxication are the behavioral changes people experience when using. For example, people often feel they can behave in ways they enjoy when using but may be too inhibited to do so otherwise. Some self-medicate anxiety in order to be more at ease in social or intimate interactions, for instance, and substance use typically disinhibits us and allows us to behave more spontaneously and impulsively. When intoxicated, people may take risks they ordinarily wouldn’t in social settings or even in actions that could be considered physically risky.

The Social Rewards of Substance Use

Substance use often has a social component, and many find themselves surrounded by a group of ‘using buddies’ during active addiction. Lowered inhibitions allow social interactions and dynamics that would not ordinarily occur, both on an individual basis and in a group dynamic. For example, many find themselves more outgoing and gregarious when intoxicated, and even better able to make romantic and sexual connections with others.

Intoxication commonly helps people feel they are more social and can participate better in social events and gatherings than when they are sober. Of course, the intimacy achieved with others while intoxicated is a temporary experience. Any interactional problems that exist such as social anxiety or social phobia remain and continue to cause problems when one is no longer intoxicated. People with such conditions are very vulnerable to developing addictions as they self-medicate symptoms over a long period of time.

The Brain’s Reward Center and Substance Abuse

The brain is altered with addictive substance use, both in one episode of intoxication and over the course of a substance problem. Addictive substances are appealing to us because of these alterations. We look to intoxication as a rewarding experience in itself, anticipating the relaxation and altered mood that will occur when we use.

The brain’s pleasure and reward center is triggered by substances to produce neurochemistry that results in the good feelings we associate with substance use.  This is why addiction is often called a brain disease. The basic workings of how we feel pleasure and when are targeted by the substances we abuse. Consequently, the brain learns to rely upon the presence of the substance to ignite the feel-good brain chemistry we depend on for a sense of reward, pleasure, and well-being. As addiction progresses, the neural pathways of the brain change to support our continuing use.  Very literally, addictive use creates a new brain that is profoundly altered in its reward and pleasure center.

When Addiction No Longer Works for Us

There is always a point in addiction where the benefits of use become overwhelmed by the negative consequences of use, or the costs outweigh the benefits. And, by the time an addiction is fully active, one begins to lose ground—not able to fully predict the effects of using, for example, and so not being able to depend on substance use to do what we have counted on it to do for us. Building tolerance is a classic example of this. As time goes on, we have to use more to get the desired effects.

The anguish of active addiction is multi-varied. And, our substances stop working for us in many ways, causing a new level of despair. If we relied on them to manage our emotions, for instance, we will eventually find that they have now created other more unmanageable emotional difficulties. The same dynamic applies to whatever purpose they served for us initially. We sought relief and respite in substance use, and then find that even this solution becomes a very strenuous and ineffective one.

If You Need Help to Overcome an Addiction

If you are at the point where your substance use is no longer working for you, there is help available. And, if you find yourself in this position,  you are certainly not alone. Countless people have run the course of substance use until negative consequences have dismantled their lives in many ways. However, the good news is, that countless people have also overcome their addictions and gone on to have healthy, happy and successful lives that are also substance free.

We can help you find the right help for you. We offer free consultations in which we identify your specific treatment needs, clarify your insurance coverage and your preferences. With all of that in mind, we can make recommendations most appropriate for you. Our service can help you and your family in an overwhelming and distressful time. Getting to treatment is important, and whatever can help you navigate that smoothly is important. Our services can cut through the vast amount of confusing information out there, leaving you and your loved ones to focus on preparing for treatment and making the necessary arrangements. Give us a call today.