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  • Question

Is "Emotional Pain Addiction" a real phenomenon, a legitimate concept?

  • Definition

Emotional pain can become an addiction. A negative feeling, such as anger, worry, grief, fear, or depression, can become so habitual that you cannot live without it. There are physical as well as mental reasons for emotional pain addiction. When a person is continuously stressed by emotional pain, there are subtle changes in the body that create a dependency on stress-related chemistry. Changing habitual patterns of pain can be as difficult as giving up an addictive substance, such as nicotine, alcohol, or even heroin. The emotional pain addict unconsciously seeks out situations that are sure to result in pain. A history of prolonged, negative, stressful relationships is usually symptomatic of emotional pain addiction. (http://www.thepositivemind.com/poetry/aboutpainanddullnessarticle.html)

  • Context

We can find many informal discussions about "Emotional Pain Addiction" on Quora by non-experts, and also presentations by self-development coaches on their websites, but also some apparently more scientific stuff here and there, in particular explaining the functions of endorphins (e.g. [1], [2], [3] below):

[1] https://www.medicinenet.com/endorphins_natural_pain_and_stress_fighters/views.htm

[2] https://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/human-brain/can-be-addicted-to-endorphins.htm

[3] https://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/emotions/endorphins.htm

  • Problem

Yet, a simple query on Google Scholar gives you no scientific research outputs on "Emotional Pain Addiction":

https://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=fr&as_sdt=0%2C5&q=%22emotional+pain+addiction%22&btnG=

And the apparently more scientific stuff on "Emotional Pain Addiction" can be self-contradictory, because [2] says it is possible to be addicted to endorphins, while [3] says it is not possible to be addicted to endorphins.

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2 Answers 2

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There are 2 phenomena that you could be referring to here. One is negativity addiction, and the other is general negativism.

While psychoanalysis is considered by some here to be pseudoscientific, there was a psychoanalytic study by Lane et al. (1991) carried out into the negativity addiction phenomenon.

[W]e have described a type of resistance that has attracted increasing psychoanalytic attention in recent years. Patients exposed to intense negativity during early life may develop an addiction to negative experience as adolescents and adults, and this may constitute a central organizing feature of their personality. In almost all patients, however, some moments of negativity may be observed. We have traced the developmental origins of an attachment to negativity, drawing especially on psychoanalytic investigations of preoedipal pathology.

The similar phenomenon of negativism has been studied in the form of Toxic Staff Syndrome (Swanson, 2002).

Examining the phenomenon of complaining provides some thought-provoking insights. Complaining is passion crying out from behind a protective shield of anger or cynicism. Look closely; within every complaint is an idea we value. Our complaints are the result of our reaction to a challenge to those values.

[...]

If persistent, the habit of negativism supplants thoughtful analysis and problem solving, permeating our perceptions, thoughts, and actions.

The paper goes into ways that negativism can be dealt with.

References

Lane, R. C., Hull, J. W., & Foehrenbach, L. M. (1991). The addiction to negativity. Psychoanalytic review, 78(3), 391-410. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1763149/

Swanson S. C. (2002). Beyond the black cloud. Advances in neonatal care : official journal of the National Association of Neonatal Nurses, 2(3), 172–174. https://doi.org/10.1053/adnc.2002.32050

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you very much for your answer. I permit myself to comment your response: I think the first quote is related to neuroticism, which might potentially be linked to Emotional Pain Addiction, although this link hasn't been investigated, to the best of my knowledge. The second quote is about complaining which seems to me very different from what is inferred by the idea of "Emotional Pain Addiction". $\endgroup$
    – Starckman
    Feb 18, 2022 at 4:36
  • $\begingroup$ I added a definition of the idea, in order to be more specific. $\endgroup$
    – Starckman
    Feb 18, 2022 at 6:02
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It is possible that what people on the Internet call "emotional pain addiction" is what research refers to as rumination:

Rumination is a repetitive thinking process, and it has been defined by Nolen-Hoeksema as “repetitively focusing on the fact that one is depressed; on one’s symptoms of depression; and on the causes, meanings, and consequences of depressive symptoms” [47] (p. 569). Treynor, Gonzales, and Nolen-Hoeksema [48] differentiated between the ‘reflective pondering’ and ‘brooding’ factors of rumination. Brooding is a more maladaptive aspect of rumination, which reflects an inactive evaluation of an individual’s current unpleasant conditions [48]. However, reflective pondering is a more adaptive rumination process, described as a deliberate response to cognitive problem-solving and is less associated with depression than brooding [48].

(Kun et al. 2020)

To what I have learned, researchers are aware that people like to ruminate while knowing it is not adaptive, but still did not investigate the reasons motivating this behavior.

Neurotic people tend to ruminate more than others.

References:

Kun, B., Urbán, R., Bőthe, B., Griffiths, M. D., Demetrovics, Z., & Kökönyei, G. (2020). Maladaptive rumination mediates the relationship between self-esteem, perfectionism, and work addiction: A largescale survey study. International journal of environmental research and public health, 17(19), 7332.

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