Psychotherapy and Addiction: The value of the Unconscious Mind

Subject: Health Care
Type: Informative Essay
Pages: 8
Word count: 2157
Topics: Drug Abuse, Addiction, Health

According to Psychology Today, addiction is a state of compulsive and repetitive use of a pleasurable substance that leads to neglect of personal and public responsibilities. As such, an individual who has an addiction to a particular substance will experience shortfalls in certain aspects of their life including but not limited to personal relationships, work, and their health. Commonly, people use the term addiction to refer to drug use, but it extends further beyond this category. In fact, restricting the definition to drug use leads to a narrow and incomprehensive account of its nature. As such, this paper will also consider sources of addiction such as food, sex, and gambling in addition to drug use. This research will aim to address the gap evidenced in the literature about the adoption of techniques aimed at utilizing the unconscious mind in psychotherapy. It is already evident that psychotherapy is essential in treating addictions. However, it has its faults that often lead to relapses. Therefore, exploring the value of the unconscious mind in addiction psychotherapy will develop the discipline further and enhance the rehabilitation process when dealing with the problem. Accordingly, the research will evaluate the nature of the unconscious mind from an exploratory perspective and suggest applications in psychotherapy. As such, the working hypothesis is that the unconscious mind has substantial value in treating addictive behavior.

Background on addiction

A survey by the Canadian Center for addiction and mental health (n.d.) reported that some of the commonly misused drugs in the country were alcohol, cigarettes, opioids pain relievers, cannabis and over the counter medications such as codeine-based cough syrup. Alcohol presented the highest statistics among Ontario students at over 50%. Similar figures were also evident in the North American regions where drug use is steadily rising. According to NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse), 17.3 million Americans suffer from alcohol dependency, and 4.2 million indicate the addiction to marijuana (NIDA, n.d.). The organization also states that there is a significant gap in the availability of treatment since less than 10% of the afflicted gets the necessary rehabilitation. Food, sex, gambling and shopping addictions albeit less significant also have a substantial effect on the region. In fact, these habits arise partially from cross-addiction where drug users substitute their predisposition to medications to other substances such as food, sex, and gambling. The NIDA also claims that approximately 40%-60% of the few individuals who undergo treatment are likely to relapse from the success of the rehabilitation and revert into their addiction. 

Therefore, a distinct problem is evidenced by these statistics. Firstly, the North American region, including Canada, has a significant drug use problem. Additionally, few people can obtain treatment and those who do have a high probability of relapse.  As such, there is an imperative need to establish effective techniques that reduce the instances of relapse and promote recovery. Expanding the current focus of psychotherapy that relies on the conscious mind could be a plausible cause of action to achieve increased success in addiction intervention.

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Psychotherapy refers to a broad array of techniques and approaches used to target the behaviors, thoughts, and emotions of an individual. The methods are characterized by the building of relationships between the professional and the patient(s) to promote a profound perception of the problem at hand (Gilbert, 2008). The development of these patient-professional relationships provides a comfortable environment for honest discussions that help to establish underlying causes of particular issues as well as exploring ways to address existent problems. The discipline of psychotherapy encompasses a wide range of techniques and practices depending on the collaborative preference of the practitioner and the patient. However, basic principles of collaboration, discussion, and incorporation of treatments into everyday life harmonize the process. It is crucial to understand the various aspects or approaches to psychotherapy. Cognitive therapy refers to treatment centered on the way that the individual interprets or understands their environment and self. On the other hand, behavioral treatment relates to an assessment of the actions carried out by the patient. The two approaches are often combined to develop a multi-dimensional strategy that encompasses personal interpretation and actions (Zweben, 1993). The psychodynamic therapy evaluates internal or psychological conflicts to understand and treat a given condition. Psychotherapy operates at individual levels where the patient talks with the professionals or in group or family settings that include interactions between numerous participants and the practitioner. 

An understanding of the principles of psychotherapy and its numerous constituent approaches indicates significant value in the treatment of addictions. The focus of psychotherapy concerning addiction is the identification of underlying factors that promote dependence on a particular substance and the modification of behavior and cognitive abilities to enhance abstinence from indulgence. As such, an integrative approach rewires the patient’s mindset and their actions to reflect those of sobriety or temperance (Fuertes & Nutt, 2017). For example, group therapy, which is the most common intervention for substance dependence, creates a comfortable environment and support structure for recovery. It also promotes increased awareness of the responsibility of the individual towards their welfare and the negative implications of addictive behavior. Also, the comradely developed in group-sessions supports the individual’s ability to abstain from the source of the addiction and attain rehabilitation. Similarly, the relationship cultivated during individual psychotherapy sessions also promotes behavioral change by reflecting on personal responsibilities, destructive behavior, and monitoring from the therapist. To some extent, the unconscious mind comes to play in this intervention process.

The unconscious mind

A simple understanding of the unconscious mind refers to aspects of the mind that the individual is not fully aware exist. The discussion of the unconscious mind cannot be complete without the review of the Sigmund Freud’s contribution to the topic. The scholar developed a theory of personality where he outlined three significant parts of the mind (McLeod, 2009). The conscious mind is one that is characterized by full awareness while the preconscious is easily accessible by the conscious mind. However, the unconscious is an entirely different and massive aspect of the mind. In this theory, Freud acknowledged the significance of the unconscious by claiming that it governs the cognition and behaviors of the individual. The scholar also posited that the unconscious is significant because it holds memories, thoughts, and feelings that one wishes to keep hidden. This rationale supports the establishment of the idea of the splitting of the mind.

The splitting of the mind refers to a situation where an intra-psychic conflict exists between two contrasting ideas. As such, the individuals choose to repress one of the thoughts and avoid it for any number of reasons including trauma, shame, or the ego (Jiraskova, 2014). In this situation, the splitting leads to simple descriptions of a particular phenomenon in the patient’s life and creates sharp contrasts between these ideas. For example, one thing can be either bad or good rather than exist in a spectrum of appeal. As such, the negative feelings and emotions undergo repression into the unconscious mind of the individual leading to substantial challenges in identifying their influence on the person’s life. The primary takeaway from this assessment is that the unconscious mind is a repository for negative aspects of an individual that they deem too traumatic to address rationally. Additionally, it acts as a defense mechanism that protects the individual from self-observation and consequent devaluation because of identifying deficiencies in their character. Perhaps, the success of this strategy arises from the amoral nature of the unconscious. After all, one cannot accept blame for something that they have no awareness. 

However, Freud neglected to describe the interaction between the unconscious and the conscious mind in influencing cognition and behavior. Despite alluding to this concept, the scholar did not create a connection between the two. Instead, he classified them separately, which is inadequate. The unconscious mind works in cooperation with the conscious mind to lead to actions and cognition that is a derivative of repressed emotions or feelings. This association is evidenced in the intra-psychic conflict and the measures that one takes to maintain the repression of these unpleasant ideas or feelings. In fact, this cooperation is the primary determinant of the behavior of the individual depending on the level of disassociation and cognition of a given situation (Phillips, 2013). For example, alcoholism becomes an effort of repression to ease the ongoing mental conflict possessed by the individual. The choice to drink occurs at a cognitive but seemingly unconscious state since the individual lacks the rationality that is characteristic of the conscious mind.  Understanding this interaction between the conscious and unconscious mind becomes a basis for the development of psychotherapeutic practices.

The unconscious mind in addiction

As established in the previous section, the individual places significant effort in repressing singular feelings that would devalue their self-worth by placing them in the unconscious mind. The underlying rationale is that the person cannot be devalued if the subject of devaluation is non-existent. The unconscious mind serves as a repository for these feelings. However, the actions used to push these thoughts and feelings aside may vary. Addiction is one of the most prominent of these strategies. As recognized by Iszáj and Demetrovics (2011), increased emotional sensitivity can lead to feelings of devaluation when the individual consciously acknowledges their presence. As such, there is an additional need to repress their adversity and aim to preserve a positive and calm outlook of their lives. For instance, a homeless individual may feel devalued by the economic situation and seek psychoactive substances to experience pleasure, albeit for a short time.

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The issue of repression occurs two-fold. The second instance is the denial of addiction. Just like in the first description, the human mind will identify addiction as a problem and seek to repress it in the unconscious (Pickard, 2016). Therefore, it leads to a common characteristic of addiction where the individual ignores the existence of the problem from an irrational unconscious view. They repress the idea that they are using too many psychoactive substances and take solace in this ignorance. To a certain degree, they actively refuse that they have a problem and decline any opportunities to improve their situation. 

Implication in psychotherapy

The therapist should be able to acknowledge the differences and potential for cooperation between the split minds by harmonizing the unconscious and conscious minds (Phillips, 2013). The primary principle is that the process of repression creates a predisposition to addiction that serves as an escape. Therefore, the goal of addiction psychotherapy is to allow the individual to understand and come to terms with the repressed feelings and emotions. By creating this kind of cooperation between the conscious and unconscious minds, one can be able to pursue the underlying issues through psychoanalysis and develop changes in cognition and behavior.  As such, the practitioner has the vital role of recognizing the unconscious prompts that the addiction is based (Lorman, 2015). The Freudian slips can provide an opportunity to conduct psychoanalysis through discussions between the patient and the therapist. Therefore, identifying underlying feelings and emotions and dealing with them through informed and rational debate is vital in curbing any form of addiction.


This information is valuable since it informs the psychotherapy. Understanding the role of the unconscious in driving addictive behavior helps identify and address the roots of addiction and provide a basis for recovery. Also, rather than engaging in a purely cognitive and behavioral therapy, the acknowledgment of the unconscious leads to permanent results. The individual can address bad or problematic feelings that devalue the individual. Instead, they have a healthy outlook on life with the reduced need for repression and therefore, no need to relapse from the recovery process. However, just like cognitive and behavioral therapy, consistency is crucial in ensuring that one can address deficiencies in character through rational and conscious approaches. As such, this knowledge can help overcome any form of addiction. 

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  10. Pickard, H. (2016). Denial in addiction. Mind & Language, 31(3), 277-299. 
  11. Zweben, J. E. (1993). Recovery-oriented psychotherapy: A model for addiction treatment. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 30(2), 259-268. 
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