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The inability to cope and its link to addiction

Charlotte Parkin (BA, MSc, FDAP, SSA), based at Priory Wellbeing Centre Harley Street and Fenchurch Street, is a psychotherapist specialising in addiction treatment.

People turn to addiction for a multitude of reasons, driven by the desire to be in a physically and/or mentally altered state. The constant need for that altered state results in unhealthy and abusive patterns of drinking, drug taking, gambling, internet use, or whatever the person’s behaviour or substance of choice is.

There is a school of thought that delves deeper into the reasons behind one’s addictive behaviours and looks at addiction as a coping mechanism, spawned by a person’s inability to cope themselves in a healthy and effective way.

Attachment theory and addiction

In psychology, this is theorised by ‘attachment theory’, which explains the concept of using addiction as a way to self-soothe. In these cases, a person turns to addiction as a way of self-soothing or coping with life’s ups and downs.

Those with healthy coping skills will take the good with the bad and will be able to use their intrinsic abilities to manage their own emotions and to navigate tough periods in life. Those who did not develop the ability to self-soothe can find themselves turning to unhealthy and co-dependent relationships or addiction to cope with the emotions that they are facing.

People who display attachment disorder may:

  • Be unable to cope
  • Suffer from alexithymia - the inability to process and articulate emotions
  • Be unable to form healthy relationships
  • Lack the capacity to be autonomous

Some people with these behaviours may subsequently search for something to fill the relational void in their lives and medicate (via substance or behavioural addiction) as a result.

How to help people to support themselves emotionally, without turning to addiction

For someone using a substance or behaviour as a coping mechanism, helping them to get an understanding of their attachment disorder and its effects can allow them to gain important insights into themselves and their addiction. It can also instil hope and act as a catalyst for change.

The treatment they receive needs to address attachment issues, looking at the cause rather than its manifestation, as this can improve the opportunity for long-term emotional recovery.

Our task is to help an individual to develop new coping strategies, through methods such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). If a maladaptive behaviour or substance is necessary for emotional functioning, a person won’t be able to give it up until it is replaced with other strategies.

If we don’t focus on building a person’s ability to cope without the need for destructive behaviours, that individual is kept in this cycle. This means that the more they soothe using substances or negative behaviours, their capacity to interact relationally becomes increasingly impaired, which in turn causes increased distress and an increased desire to self-soothe.

It is important to recognise that when a person has depleted internal resources, dysfunctional patterns of behaviour will be harder to overcome. It is therefore a possibility that practitioners look away from the behaviour per se, and instead focus on what is causing the depleted resources.

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For details of how Priory can provide you with assistance regarding addiction treatment and rehabilitation, please call 0800 144 8969 or click here to book a FREE ADDICTION ASSESSMENT. For professionals looking to make a referral, please click here

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