It’s challenging for people in active addiction to feel empathy. When you are hyper-focused on a substance—and your brain responds by flooding you with dopamine—other people’s needs fade to the background.
But helping others also releases Dopamine in the brain, according to numerous studies. Dopamine—and the brain’s reward system that produces it—gets hijacked by addiction. These systems exist to help people seek positive rewards like food, love, and social connection.
There is a reason that 12-step fellowships talk about being of service. Giving back connects people to their community, and allows for them to feel a larger sense of purpose. You may have less motivation to use substances when you have a positive place to put your energy. This is a natural reward, especially if your involvement is deep and long-term.
I’ve seen speculation (though it’s hard to find research) that empaths are more prone to addiction. I am open to this possibility; empaths are highly sensitive and attuned to the suffering of the world. That is a lot to hold. Wanting to numb out makes sense..
And when you’ve worked in recovery to understand your own thoughts and behaviors, it often leads to empathy for others. It provides a larger-picture understanding of nuanced human emotion.
This can make people want to help those who are suffering. Many with addictions have hurt others along the way, whether intentionally or not. People might channel guilty feelings into giving back. This is more useful than chastising oneself for past actions.
The COVID-19 pandemic is also asking us to exercise empathy. When initial reports were saying “only” older adults and people with chronic illness were at risk, some people not in those groups wanted to live as normal. With social distancing, we’ve been asked to practice collective empathy—to protect the lives of strangers as we would our own.
And even as some sources have called COVID-19 the “great equalizer,” that remains untrue. People of Color and people in low-income communities are getting sick and dying at much higher rates. Grocery store workers, healthcare practitioners, and others with public-facing jobs are living a different reality than those working from home.
You need empathy to hold two facts at once: this is a dark time for most of us. It might be harder for someone else than it is for you.
While some people may be more inclined to empathy than others, it isn’t a static quality. Active listening is an important way to work that muscle.
This is especially relevant right now in this time of protests. If you are not Black and a Black person tells you about their experience of racism, listen.
Empathy within the addiction space goes both ways; there needs to be more empathy for those with Substance Use Disorders from those who haven’t experienced addiction. There are harmful stereotypes about people with addiction—even towards those of us in recovery—that we are selfish, lazy, lack willpower. Stigmatizing terms like “substance abuser” paint us as, well, abusers.
Drug policies are often punitive rather than helpful—especially, again, for People of Color. We need more empathy for the underlying reasons causing people to drink or use. People with addiction need support, not punishment.
If you are looking for treatment for a substance use or mental health disorder during the pandemic, there is hope. TruHealing Centers is open throughout the crisis, with hospital-grade sanitization and telehealth options. Many staff at our centers across the country are in recovery themselves, and have empathy for those in active addiction. They will support and guide you to a life in long-term recovery. Call an admissions specialist at 410-593-0005.