The sad and untimely loss of Whitney Houston is yet another highly publicized death that called into question the abuse of prescription drugs. Tragic episodes like this may be making the news because of their high-profile victims, but they also direct our attention to a growing epidemic in the United States. A 2011 report from the Centers for Disease Control stated that, "Overdoses of prescription painkillers have more than tripled in the past 20 years, leading to 14,800 deaths in the United States in 2008." The CDC further reported that there have been nearly half a million visits to emergency rooms for prescription painkiller abuse or misuse. Many Americans take over-the-counter pain medicines on almost a daily basis without realizing that these medications have been linked to accidental overdoses and death.
These statistics point to an extreme problem in our society: our aversion to experiencing pain or even feeling uncomfortable. Prescription drug abuse is at a high, because Americans are setting their pain threshold to an all-time low. Obviously, people in severe pain should be medicated appropriately and have access to any needed prescriptions. In contrast, people who abuse or misuse substances to avoid discomfort are hurting themselves by failing to deal with the underlying roots of their pain. This abuse of drugs is a symptom of a larger psychological problem. In our ceaseless search for relief, we have become a pain-averse culture. This raises a serious question. Why has our society weakened our perceived tolerance and become so averse to experiencing feelings?
A recent study showed that three in 10 women in the United States use a sleep aid. This stirring statistic reflects our tendency to treat the symptoms as opposed to the problem. Instead of asking how we can get ourselves to sleep, we should be asking "why aren't we sleeping?" Why are we so anxious that we feel we must actually drug ourselves into unconsciousness?
When we try to submerge or alleviate pain and anxiety, we ignore their messages. Pain, whether physical or mental, is trying to tell us something important. When we try to quiet our discomfort, we fail to identify its cause and address the underlying issues that lead to our suffering.
The problem with trying to suppress our pain and anxiety is that when we succeed in doing so, we become cut off to experiencing emotion. Our lows may feel less low, but our highs will also feel less high. Painkillers and sleep aids may temporarily allay our discomfort, but they further manage to kill the joys that we would naturally experience. When we turn to medications for relief, we exacerbate the problem and put our physical health at risk.
For example, in 2010, there were 131.2 million prescriptions of Vicodin written, making it the most commonly prescribed drug that year. Vicodin is a highly addictive drug often used to alleviate pain. As people develop tolerance to this medication, they increase dosages to get the same level of relief, inadvertently putting their health in danger.Abuse of drugs is a symptom of a larger psychological problem.
As we engage in this pattern, we never deal with the underlying pain, thus creating a vicious cycle from which it becomes increasingly difficult to emerge. The seduction of getting relief creates a path to addiction, often requiring more and more, as the apprehension of possible discomfort increases. Even over-the-counter pain medicines are dangerous, as people use them in large doses, for prolonged intervals, and take them preemptively when anticipating pain. For example, a friend of mine used to take medication before working out, because the exercise might cause aching muscles.He did this unaware of the harmful pattern this could generate.
As individuals, we need to face what it is that our pain is trying to alert us to and then deal with the physical or mental health issues we uncover. In relation to psychological pain, the only solution to dealing with distressing feelings is to feel them. This is not to say that people cannot benefit from psychotropic medication. This is more to say that the abuse or misuse of drugs by certain individuals prevents them from dealing with feelings that would ultimately allow them to feel better.
Each of us should seek to be strong enough to feel our deep-seated pain and to allow it to surface. We often anticipate that we will feel worse, that we will be overwhelmed by the emotions, but we usually feel better. It takes a lot of energy to suppress feelings. Getting in touch with our feelings actually makes us more centered in ourselves. We've all had those moments when the stress, anxiety, and heartache become too much, and we break down and allow ourselves to cry. To our surprise and relief, following this release of emotion, we often feel more relaxed, calm, and rejuvenated.
Coping with pain effectively involves uncovering whatever is driving the pain, so we can address the underlying issues. Facing our painful feelings often means starting an internal journey to understand where those feelings come from. Each of us should ask why we are in pain and address that. This may seem easier said than done, but learning the ways we were hurt can help us differentiate from ways that we are currently hurting ourselves. It is often necessary to contend with old pain from the past in order to live fully and peacefully in the present.
Getting to know ourselves truly is an important journey for every individual. The more we understand what drives our misery from our past, the stronger we become in facing the future. When we surface old feelings of shame and hurt, we can learn to build our resilience and overcome problems. As we develop our threshold to feel the sadness in our lives, we open up a space to feel the joys in life. Furthermore, we can begin to address obstacles and make choices that will be more fulfilling and in our own real interest.
A woman who suffered from insomnia knew first-hand the negative side-effects of prescription drugs. After a lifelong battle her sleeping disorder, she decided at the age of 60 to take it on without the help of sleep aids. A deep level of anxiety began to surface. Instead of numbing the anxiety with painkillers or distractions that either left her in a dreary state for much of the next day or lying wide awake until the sun rose, she decided to see where her mind went. At first, the thoughts raced, so she started to write them down.
As she wrote, her notebooks became filled with her greatest fears, concerns, and self-critical thoughts that she'd tried to bury but that were keeping her mind from being at rest late at night, and often, for much of her days. As she wrote down and acknowledged these fears, she began to deal with them on a conscious and "feeling" level. Alleviating her fear of the anxiety in itself helped this woman to take control of her sleep disorder. Through dedication and bravery, she was able to overcome a problem that had plagued her for decades.
This is not to say that carefully used and professionally monitored medications are not of value. It is simply to state my concerns over our gravitation toward a society in which feelings are shunned, not tolerated, or immediately labeled as matter of medical concern. A feeling-averse culture will ultimately dehumanize us. Empathy is an essential part of our human heritage, and the more we move away from feeling, the more we move away from love, closeness, vitality, and fulfillment.
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org.