Empathy, which is the capacity to share and understand emotional states of others in reference to oneself, plays a critical role in human interpersonal engagement and social interaction. It facilitates close connection between individuals, and it often creates feelings of reward and safety. Some people are more prone to empathy than others. But there are also individuals who are hyper-sensitive to the feelings and interactions around them, to the point that they absorb both the positive and negative atmospheres they find themselves in. These people fall into two sometimes overlapping categories: highly sensitive persons (HSPs) and empaths. While being an empath is not a clinical diagnosis recognized by the DSM-V, this tendency toward sensitivity certainly presents as a risk factor for developing addiction. Many people suffering with drug or alcohol dependence lean on their substance of choice to bring some relief to the feeling of constant overstimulation. So why are empaths prone to addiction?
Seeking Some Peace and Quiet
Highly sensitive persons and empaths live in a constant state of vulnerability. Although they don’t always view themselves so, they are victims to circumstance to such a degree that it interferes with daily function and the ability to cope with stressors. As this constant stress builds, it becomes more and more difficult to find some peace and quiet. Unfortunately, many empaths find that piece and quiet through the numbing effects of their drug of choice. And as it builds into a habit, suddenly this maldadaptive coping mechanism takes over their lives and becomes #1.
An Insidious “Solution”
Mind-altering substances change the way neuroreceptors work, dramatically altering the presence of naturally occurring chemicals in the brain that regulate mood. Empaths, who pretty constantly deal with too much stimulation from external sensory input, welcome this change as their brains and/or central nervous system changes behavior under the influence. Some examples of how this “solution” works:
Depressants: Alcohol, Benzos, Opiates
Depressants impair and/or slow the central nervous system. The brain does not send signals as well when affected by depressants, so external stimuli are effectively blocked or muted. Alcohol is one of the most widespread depressants used, although the opiate epidemic has caused opiates like oxycodone, heroin, and fentanyl to proliferate as well. Benzo addiction increases as doctor prescribe them as sleep aids and anti-anxiety medication. Other depressants include barbituates, cannabis, and Rohypnol.
Stimulants: Amphetamines, Cocaine, Meth
Also known as “uppers,” stimulants speed up the activity between the brain and nervous system. Caffeine and nicotine are also considered stimulants, which explains why many addicts in recovery pick up habits like drinking more coffee or smoking. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, empaths may choose stimulants to feel better equipped to handle their already overactive nervous system.
Dissociative: PCP, Ketamine, DXM/Robo
Dissociative drugs block signals to the conscious mind from different parts of the brain. Studies suggest that this may occur as the drugs disrupt the actions of glutamate, a chemical in the brain that plays a large role in pain perception, cognition, and emotion. Some of these drugs also have hallucinogenic effects. Dissociatives can be popular with empaths as a way to effectively tranquilize themselves against sensory input.
Whatever their drug of choice, there is no denying that chemicals address the most acute sources of discomfort that empaths face. At least at first. Depressants slow the input down, stimulants elevate mood to feel more prepared to handle input, and dissociatives can turn it off all together.
But as time goes along, the body builds tolerance, and eventually users get to a point of using not to feel high or achieve quietude, but just to avoid feeling sick. And for empaths, this creates even more anxiety as their nervous system becomes frayed and otherwise compromised by chemical dependence.
How Empaths Can Achieve Sobriety
It may seem hopeless for empaths and other highly sensitive persons to find a way to deal with their emotions without the help of alcohol and/or drugs. But these drugs are simply one tool among many to handle sensory input overload–and others are much more sustainable for the mind and body.
These tools can range from pharmaceutical to therapeutic. To address addictions already formed, options like suboxone and sublocade provide a path forward to get clean. Persons suffering with dual diagnosis may find hope in mood medications to help regulate issues like depression, bipolar, and OCD. Even with these options, therapy remains an essential component to building healthy coping skills.
If you or a loved one is suffering from a substance abuse problem, our addiction counselors are available 24/7 by phone: 855-737-7363