Ep. 152: Sensitivity and Addiction

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We know that genes play a role in transmitting a predisposition to addictions, but it’s often that it’s the capacity of the chances of becoming addicted are passed on. This is where our degree of sensitivity can come in. 


The more sensitive (or vulnerable) a person is, the more suffering they experience when painful events happen – and the more hurt we humans are, the more we naturally want to escape that pain…and this can sometimes be via addictive behaviors. 



While there’s no definitive causal link in the research between being high sensitivity and addictive behavior, there’s certainly a suggestion of a connection, or correlation. It’s definitely been true in my own experience and observations in my clinical practice. 


Up to 30% of people are Highly Sensitive Persons (HSPs). HSPs are born with a very sensitive nervous system – one that takes in and processes LOTS of information. This means they tend to notice all. the. things., and their brains end up working overtime to process it all, resulting in overwhelm. 


While this sensitivity can be a great thing that allows HSPs to have a high level of emotional intelligence and can be very creative, it can also be potentially exhausting.  


Since HSPs often experience the world as overstimulaiton, they – like other humans – will often seek a way to turn it off. 


Empaths may do this too when they become overwhelmed when they feel too much – either their pain or another’s. Then there are those of us who may not have a diagnosis or classification of HSP or Empath but who still self-identify as a more sensitive type and will also have more of a chance of developing behavior to cope with pain. 


One of the common very human ways of doing so is by escaping from, erasing, or numbing it… which can lead to (you guessed it) addictive behaviors. 


And it’s not just our genes or our sensitivities and vulnerabilities that can play a role. Our environment also is a HUGE factor, which is good news, because we can do something about the environment.  


When it comes to healing addiction, we need to create for ourselves the healing environment that we didn’t get when we were younger. Especially if we are sensitive – even more environmental considerations need to be taken into account. 


Us wild and whacky humans are either going to try to soothe our pain through external means – via codependency, being addicted to love, by doing a substance… 


OR we learn to stay with our pain without trying to compensate for it, because addictions are all an attempt to compensate for pain. To lessen it. 

Dr. Carl Hart, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Columbia and author of Drug Use for Grown Ups, supports that pre-existing kind vulnerabilities (psychological or circumstantial) can lead to addiction as we attempt to ease our suffering. He says we must “look beyond the drug itself” to things like co-occurring psychiatric disorders and socioeconomic factors. 


Now, the problem is that we learn the skills to be with pain as young children – and many of us didn’t have great support for that. Any child will have painful experiences simply by being alive. They could be too hot, too cold, too hungry, sick, or in pain. We learn to hold pain and be with it when we know that pain is something we can handle and that it’s temporary – it will pass. But how does a child learn to hold pain? 


Someone could model it for us, like our parents holding our pain with compassion and being empathetic witnesses. Helping us see that this pain isn’t devastating, we can handle it. 


But if we’re not held like that, then as soon as pain arises, we think it’s never going to stop, we’ll feel overwhelmed, and that’s when we need to soothe it from the outside. 


Now, staying present with pain goes against everything we’re programmed for. Remember, our motivational triad is to avoid pain, seek pleasure, and do what’s easy. Being with pain is NONE of the above. 


Also keep in mind that when we evolved that way, addictive substances weren’t as readily available – those concentrated dopamine hits of drugs like heroin and cocaine, high-proof alcohol, high glycemic-index carbs, easy access to porn… 


And here is where we circle back to how there is for the most part no “cure” in modern psychiatry. So many clients will say, I wasn’t depressed for years, but it came back. Or I thought I was over beating myself up, but here I am back at it. 


Listen… we can get so much better. Progress isn’t measured by CURE. But HEALING is being with it, cultivating the capacity to be with it… which can actually help it happen less and less, with decreased duration and intensity too. 


So if we experience suffering along the way, it’s just a sign that at that moment we aren’t able to give ourselves that capacity to hold our suffering. And the way we compensate for that often creates more suffering for ourselves if it’s in the form of habit-forming behaviors that lead to addiction. 


Buddha says that with our minds and thoughts, we create the world. But the part that isn’t mentioned a lot in the teachings is how before we create the world with our minds, the world creates our minds too. This helps us remember self-compassion and learn new ways to work with our brain. 


The ultimate truth is that despite the most difficult early experiences, we have the capacity to hold our suffering, and the world also creates environments in which being with this pain if available if we look for that – healthy friendships, community, spiritual groups, nature, and reconnection with ourselves. 


We know that people can heal. 


This is our practice. It applies to all of us, not just sensitive people. But it’s particularly important if you or someone you know is sensitive. 


With this practice, as a more sensitive person, we won’t be as controlled and reactive due to the overwhelm and sensory overload we may feel, and we’ll be more likely to be able to have a sense of being centered and grounded amidst it all, which is a really liberating feeling. We’ll have more access to our wild mind. 


Being highly sensitive comes with a capacity for growth and self-reflection — traits the world really needs right now. So if you identify as sensitive, please continue your practice to build this resilience, to stay on your path and not get derailed by addiction or a false sense of safety or relaxation. 


This world needs you. 


What you’ll learn: 

// Why and how sensitivity may have a connection with addiction, along with our genetics. 

// How epigenetics and environment can affect future generations… positively OR negatively. 

// How textbooks define addiction and how it shows up in adults who use drugs. 

// How we can begin to heal ourselves and build resilience as sensitive people 



// Episode 2: How to Not Care WHat Other People Think About You 


// Episode 13: How to Quit Buffering 


// Episode 15: How to Drink Less 


// Episode 144: Your Wild Mind – The East and Our Need to Escape 


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