As addicts and alcoholics, we are used to living in extremes. For us, it is typically either all or nothing. The world we live in is black and white, and those we come into contact with are either with us or against us. Think back to a time while you were still very active in your addiction. Think back to a time when you felt emotionally out of control. Perhaps you lost your temper and reacted violently, or broke down crying in a public place. Now think of a time in your active addiction during which you felt completely calm, serene, and at peace. This image is probably slightly more difficult to conjure. During our active addictions, we were at constant war with our emotions. Many of us began using in the first place because we could not bear to sit alone with our feelings – we found alcohol and drugs, and suddenly, the unresolved pain that we had been harboring from a young age began to dissipate. We felt relief, real relief for the first time in years.
Drowning Emotions in Alcohol – The Norm
You may hear recovering alcoholics share their stories, many of them claiming that something clicked the first time they got drunk – finally, everything made sense. They didn’t feel so alone; they didn’t feel so different. Why do we feel so different in the first place? In many cases, it is simply because we are sitting amidst an overwhelming amount of unaddressed emotional trauma. Our traumatic experiences, many of them occurring throughout childhood, prevent us from feeling connected to other human beings – prevent us from feeling emotionally secure. And persistent emotionally insecurity leads to an underlying inability to adequately regulate emotions, which, in turn, leads to an overwhelming desire to drown them all out in a bottle of liquor.
Trauma and Emotional Regulation
When we get sober, we may expect that our emotions fall back into place automatically – forgetting that we never had a firm grasp on emotional regulation in the first place. In reality, we often sober up to find a monstrous mass of accumulated emotional upset, throbbing and aching and begging to be untangled. This is where therapeutic treatment comes into play. For those of us suffering from unresolved trauma, undergoing intensive therapeutic healing will be vital to the overall recovery process. In order to begin regulating our emotions in a healthy and efficient way, we must first resolve all of the deep-seated pain entrenched in our souls. And so we sit through hours of group and individual therapy sessions; uncovering, identifying, and healing. We come to a place of acceptance and our way of thinking begins to steadily shift – we are not victims; we are blessed to be alive. We start to feel better, slowly by slowly.
But still, we are not familiar with all of our emotions and the way that they effectively function. We are used to despair and turmoil, we are used to self-pity and anger – but what about happiness? What about sadness, and empathy, and compassion? Building emotional resiliency in the face of uncomfortable emotions is imperative to long-term recovery. After all, if we don’t know how to handle an uncomfortable emotion once it arises we will likely turn right back to our proven coping mechanism (no matter how rapidly self-destructive).
How Do We Manage Our Emotions?
The first step to managing our emotions is simply acquiring an awareness of emotional states, and understanding the relationship between feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Remember – the only thing we can control is our own behavior. We cannot control our thoughts (though we can change them), and we certainly cannot control our feelings. But with a little practice we can regulate our feelings, so that they do us no harm. We practice being mindful. We begin to pay attention to the way we feel without being judgmental or harsh. We pay attention to the way our feelings interact with our thoughts. Do negative emotions, such as anger, frustration, or stress usually follow self-deprecating thoughts such as, “I am a failure, I never do anything right?” If so, practice directing your thoughts in a more positive direction. Utilize daily affirmations – remind yourself that you are capable, you are good enough, and you are loved by many.
Because we are so used to living in extremes, we tend to gravitate towards what psychologist Aaron Beck calls ‘cognitive errors of over-generalization’. Thoughts that fall into this category might go something like this – “I can’t do anything right,” or, “I will never overcome this obstacle”. It is important to become aware of these over-exaggerated thoughts, and to challenge them as soon as they arise. How likely is it that you will never overcome that specific obstacle? Does it only feel that way now because you are being asked to put forth a great amount of time and effort?
Worry – Meditation on Negativity
Try being more realistic and optimistic when issues arise. “I am having some difficulty overcoming this obstacle now, but if I set some realistic goals I will be able to accomplish them and overcome the obstacle in a matter of weeks.” Do what you can, and go easy on yourself. Try to actively cope with issues as they crop up rather than succumbing to a senseless cycle of amplified defeat and crippling worry.
One of the most detrimental cognitive patterns we fall into is worry – meditating on all of the latent misfortune, potential disaster, and hypothetical heartache that may someday occur. From fear sprouts worry, and from worry shoots anxiety, stress, and an unfortunate inability to enjoy the present moment. A large component of emotional regulation is paying attention to the positive, and learning to actively live in the here and the now. When we dwell on past hardship we become depressed, and when we anticipate future hardship, we become anxious. When we remain actively engaged with the present and focus on all of the positivity in our lives, we are far more likely to remain in a place of gratitude, acceptance, and serenity.
Emotional Health and Addiction Recovery
We also must take a close look at the way that we process emotions. It is important to keep in mind that all feelings travel along a natural arc and will eventually dissipate. Feelings are not facts, and they are always (always) temporary. Changing the way that we process emotions as we experience them, however, may help us to regain equilibrium more quickly and overcome uncomfortable feelings more effectively. For example, we may find that when someone gets angry or upset with us, we immediately shut down and begin isolating. Once we become aware of this pattern, we can begin to change it. Rather than shutting down, we can make a conscious effort to address the issue as it arises. We can attempt to express our feelings to the other party, and focus on why it is that we shut down when someone expresses dissatisfaction with us. Maybe it hits a core button that we need to address a bit more in depth. By taking a close and honest look at why we feel the way we do, we will open the door for emotional growth and regulation.
Emotional health is a key component of addiction recovery, and emotional regulation is vital to emotional health. We at Next Chapter focus on uncovering and treating unresolved trauma, helping our clients to overcome any potential hurdles that may stand in the way of emotional healing. We work to instill the tools and coping mechanisms necessary to emotional regulation, teaching our clients to identify cognitive and emotional patterns and completely alter detrimental ways of thinking and behaving. For more information on our program of recovery, please feel free to contact us today.