It happens to the best of us. We are living life and enjoying every moment of it. Then suddenly things start spinning out of control and we wonder what happened. Where did our joy go? Why are we feeling this way? It does not matter where we grew up or went to school. It does not matter what type of job we have or where we live. What matters is that life has tossed us a curveball and things are not turning out the way we thought they would. And before we know it, we become depressed and search for an addiction to cope with our feelings. At the same time, of course, we are completely in denial about everything.

Depression, Addiction, and Denial—the “DAD” effect—is something experts agree is a growing concern.

Avoiding Emotions

“Avoiding emotions, such as sadness, keeps us from processing what is going on,” said A.J. Marsden, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida. “It keeps us from being able to accept and move past the event. Negative emotions are useful, especially sadness. Sadness can improve your judgment and motivation. Those who allow themselves to experience sadness can use this emotion as a catalyst to push them out of their comfort zone and do more to start to feel better. In fact, those who process their sadness also show greater perseverance.”

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But not everyone is equipped to deal with sadness or negative emotions, and that is where the path to addictions can begin. “Depression and addiction often go hand in hand, but which came first is not always clear,” said Romas Buivydas, PhD, LHMC, Vice President of Clinical Development at Spectrum Health Systems, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of individuals impacted by addiction or mental health disorders.  “In many cases, drugs or alcohol are turned to for relief from the mental pain of depression. In others, depression develops as a result of the emotional and physical damage done by addiction,” Dr. Buivydas explains.

Addiction + Mental Health Problems

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), there are an estimated nine million adults that have mental health and substance abuse problems. Sadly, only about 7% are getting treatment for both conditions. When substance abuse is combined with depression, these conditions tend to amplify each other, causing negative effects to multiply. And if one disorder is treated without the other, recovery becomes much less likely.

It is important to understand that emotions have several components to them. According to Dr. Marsden, the way we feel due to an event or action comes down to how we interpret or label experiences. “We can feel good or positive about something as simple as being greeted by our dog when we come home,” Dr. Marsden said. “It is pleasurable and therefore we want to repeat it. Negative experiences, however, are viewed as ‘bad,’ and we come to believe that these should be avoided. In fact, we are taught from a very young age to avoid negative emotions. How many times have we heard our parents insist there is ‘nothing to cry about?’ Unfortunately, this drive to avoid bad emotions can lead to drug or alcohol abuse or other self-harming behavior.”

Understanding Emotional Coping Skills

Medical experts agree that many people have excess baggage left over from their childhood that affects how they deal with their emotions as adults. Here are just a few examples of how children are trained to deal with their feelings:

  • Avoid bad feelings at all costs. Children are encouraged to “bury any bad feelings,” and when all of that pain and sadness is kept inside, it can slowly surface in the future through other behaviors, including anger, overeating, and difficulties in dealing with peers.
  • Pass judgment on others. When a child feels badly about themselves, for example, rather than dealing with their own issue, they often find it is easier to focus on someone else’s faults. A child might feel self-conscience about their appearance and settle for making fun of someone else’s appearance, instead of seeking out someone to speak with about how they feel about themselves.
  • Keep their opinions to themselves. If a child is not given the opportunity to share their own views when something happens, eventually they will continue to suppress how they truly feel.

Danger of Suicide

To make matters worse, those who are depressed and coping with their feelings through alcohol or drug abuse are more likely to be in danger of committing suicide.  “When substance abuse is combined with depression, the risk of self-inflicted death grows exponentially,” said Dr. Buivydas. “Even when the needed treatment help is available, those with depression and addiction issues face extra struggles. Alcohol and drugs can get in the way of mental health treatment, and depression is a key predictor of relapse back to substance use.”

There is also another complication: those struggling with addiction are typically unaware they are also dealing with depression. In other words, their addiction has now completely taken over their lives.

“Those who have experienced a recent struggle, challenge, or tragedy may feel compelled to avoid processing the negative emotions associated with the experience,” said Nicki Nance, a licensed psychotherapist and associate professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College. “Where the denial lies is in the addict’s perception. I have done a lot of timelines with people in early recovery, and more often than not, their depression was the result of excessive loss and stress. The contributing factors being brain changes caused by the drugs, as well as the loss of jobs, relationships, health, and pride.”

Facing problems early is key because depression makes a person more vulnerable to developing addiction and vice versa. Treating each issue—as soon as it manifests—can help prevent one problem from turning into two. Renowned performance psychologist Jim Loehr, EdD, the author of 16 books and the co-founder of the Human Performance Institute, recommends a coping strategy that has helped many of the champions he’s counseled. Turn around a negative experience, such as a loss or defeat, by visually “rewriting” the story.  Simply give it a different ending—the positive one you had hoped for. Dr. Loehr says this mental exercise reframes the adversity so you can see it as an opportunity for growth and learning—not as a mortal blow that ends a career.

If you or anyone you know is considering suicide or self-harm or just need to talk, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or visit our emergency mental health resources page.


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Last Updated: Mar 29, 2019