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How Trauma, Stress, and Cognitive Dissonances Can Lead to Drug Use

How Trauma, Stress, and Cognitive Dissonances Can Lead to Drug Use | Article | Faith Recovery Beverly Hills, California 90210

How Does Cognitive Dissonance Influence Your Ability to Recover from a Substance Use Disorder?

Multiple things can contribute to drug or alcohol addiction, including genetics, past trauma, stress, your environment, and high levels of cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance occurs when a belief or value conflicts with your desire to do something. People seek consistency between their beliefs and attitudes and experience discomfort and psychological stress when they’re faced with cognitive dissonance. This causes people to participate in behaviors that will minimize their stress and discomfort. 

For individuals struggling with substance use disorder, cognitive dissonance is a defense mechanism often used to justify their substance misuse. 

When Does Cognitive Dissonance Occur?

Cognitive dissonance occurs when your brain identifies a conflict between your behavior, beliefs, or values. This causes feelings of anxiety and unease that eventually lead to changes in your thoughts or actions that allow you to resolve this inner conflict. 

How Does the Brain Deal with Cognitive Dissonance?

Your brain uses multiple strategies to resolve a situation that’s causing cognitive dissonance:

1. You change your behavior

2. You change your beliefs 

3. You adopt a different belief that helps you justify the cognitive dissonance

For example, if you abuse alcohol to deal with stress or trauma, you’re likely constantly undulated with articles, news reports, and advice that tells you about the dangers of alcohol addiction. To deal with this stress and unease, one of the following might happen:

  • You change your behavior and stop drinking.
  • You adjust your beliefs to acknowledge the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption but believe that you’re immune to these negative consequences.
  • You adopt a new belief that using alcohol is useful for helping people who’ve experienced traumatic events function, making it worth the potential negative consequences

It’s important to note that you don’t consciously decide the best way to handle feelings caused by cognitive dissonance. 

Instead, your brain is likely to subconsciously choose the easiest strategy to minimize the stress that you’re feeling. 

How Does Cognitive Dissonance Influence Your Ability to Recover from a Substance Use Disorder?

Unfortunately, cognitive dissonance makes it easy for individuals struggling with addiction to defend their unhealthy behaviors. It’s much easier for your brain to rationalize your substance misuse than for you to stop using.  

Your reality is distorted as your brain works to protect your addiction. Even when you’re presented with evidence or hard facts, you have a justification for your substance abuse. 

The recovery process needs to address cognitive dissonance that’s allowing you to defend your substance misuse. 

Even when you stop using drugs or alcohol, you’ll need to continue to be aware of cognitive dissonance that can cause you to resume your substance misuse. Cognitive dissonance may also allow you to justify any relapses or setbacks that you experience. 

What Techniques Can Help Your More Effectively Address Cognitive Dissonance?

There are a few techniques that are beneficial for addressing cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a psychological treatment that’s effective at addressing the feelings and thoughts that contribute to addiction.

The goal of CBT is for patients to recognize that many actions and emotions are illogical; these feelings are often associated with previous trauma and stressful experiences.

If you understand why you feel or respond a specific way, this gives you valuable insight for combating your addiction. CBT also assists you with understanding how your feelings contribute to substance use disorder. 

By identifying negative, unproductive thoughts that are seemingly “automatic,” you can learn healthier coping techniques for managing your emotions and painful memories.

Many individuals struggling with addiction use drugs or alcohol as a form of self-medication to reduce the pain associated with their negative thoughts and emotions. You can learn new behaviors that are useful for producing healthier responses to your feelings. 

Mindful Activities

Activities that encourage mindfulness are beneficial for recognizing some of the ways that your brain tries to trick you.

Meditation is a mindful activity that encourages you to be more aware of what you’re feeling and seeing, without judging or attempting to decipher your thoughts.

Instead, you acknowledge the emotion and redirect your thoughts. Part of mindfulness is accepting that you’re going to experience certain thoughts and emotions that may be unpleasant. 

Rather than allowing your brain to control your activities and your life, you focus on learning techniques that help you better manage your brain. You learn how to overcome the habitual thoughts that are impacting your ability to recover from your substance use disorder. 


Therapy is a valuable tool for learning how to better deal with cognitive dissonance. Spending time with someone who challenges your faulty rationalizations helps you identify problematic thoughts and behaviors. 

Both group therapy and individual therapy are useful for naming the underlying causes of the inconsistencies that are contributing to your cognitive dissonance. 

Is Cognitive Dissonance Related to Mental Illness?

While nearly every person experiences cognitive dissonance at some point in their life, cognitive dissonance can affect your mental health.

It’s common for people who have a dual diagnosis of addiction and a mental illness to struggle with resolving their cognitive dissonance in healthy ways.

Assume that you experience depression and anxiety and regularly abuse alcohol and narcotics. You know that substance misuse is likely to make your depression and anxiety worse in the long run, so you tell yourself that these substances are beneficial for you because they allow you to have short periods where you don’t feel sad, irritable, or anxious. 

Many individuals struggling with their mental health turn to drugs and alcohol to alleviate their painful emotions. High levels of cognitive dissonance are associated with higher risks of depression and anxiety.

Mental strain and discomfort, whether it’s caused by stress or trauma, make you more likely to turn to unhealthy behaviors in an attempt to deal with your life. 

Addiction, mental health, and cognitive dissonance are all intertwined. To effectively manage your substance use disorder, you need to address your mental health and learn how to better respond to cognitive dissonance. 

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