“I gave myself permission to feel and experience all of my emotions. In order to do that, I had to stop being afraid to feel. In order to do that, I taught myself to believe that no matter what I felt or what happened when I felt it, I would be okay.”
~ Iyanla Vanzant, life coach and host of Iyanla: Fix My Life
Facing Your Feelings Sober
Substance abusers are not particularly well-known for their patience or forbearance. Most alcoholics/addicts in early recovery are unpleasantly dismayed to learn that although their problems do not magically and instantly go away simply because they are abstaining from drinking or using.
Many may actually feel as if they are on the equivalent of an “emotional roller coaster” because their feelings seem to be all over the place – one moment, they are on top of the world, unbeatable and invincible; and the next, they are in a pit of despair, psychically drained, and wondering if a clean and sober life is worth the pain and the struggle.
A Normal Part of Recovery
Individuals experiencing this helter-skelter emotional bombardment can take a small measure of comfort from the fact that what they are feeling is entirely normal for a newly-sober former substance abuser.
During active addiction, the imbibed chemicals (or alcohol) profoundly change the brain’s chemistry. This is because drugs and alcohol affect the reward centers of the brain, making it virtually impossible for the user to experience pleasure normally.
Likewise, the brain’s frontal cortex – the area associated with decision-making and judgment – is significantly affected by chronic drug usage. A person in active addiction experiences greatly-weakened impulse control, primarily because of a drug’s frequent “hijacking” of the brain’s reward center.
Even when an individual enters recovery and abstains from further drug use, it can take a considerable amount of time – in some cases, over a year, for the person’s brain to return to normal.
One of the biggest challenges in early recovery is re-learning how to have appropriate emotional responses to everyday life. Staying on as even a keel as possible and regulating excessively high and low feelings is known as “emotional sobriety”, and is as much a lifetime project as staying sober. In fact, learning to regulate too-strong emotions is key to avoiding relapse.
Overly-powerful emotions, especially negative ones, can lead to related feelings of guilt, shame, pain, regret, or discomfort, and in the addicted mind – and in the recently-addicted mind – these negative feelings have habitually been dealt with by masking the pain with drugs or alcohol.
Since the goal of recovery is abstinence, the individual has to cultivate new skills for dealing with the almost-unpredictable emotional spectrum caused by a brain that is trying to regulate itself, as well as the trials and travails of everyday life.
How to Survive Strong Emotions
There are different techniques that a newly-sober person who is feeling overwhelmed by the rush of unaccustomed emotions can use to gain a modicum of relief.
The first thing that an emotionally-beleaguered person in recovery must do is simply listen to the absolutely clear instructions given by literature provided by the treatment facility. In recovery, priorities must always be set, with the admonishment – “FIRST THINGS FIRST“.
In other words, no matter how low or how high or how confused a person may feel, there is one constant rule that must not be broken – DON’T USE OR DRINK.
In terms of sheer survival, there is nothing that comes before that priority.
If you are a recovering alcoholic still in an emotionally-fragile state and you are torn up by apprehension and indecision – DON’T USE OR DRINK – and just hold on one day at a time, one hour at the time, and if you have to, one minute at a time, until you feel emotionally strong enough to overcome your fear and make a decision.
The truth of the matter is this – if you are apprehensive or indecisive, the odds are that you will survive those feelings until you can sort them out. It may be hard, it may be uncomfortable, but you will live.
On the other hand, if you let the negative emotions trigger a relapse and you pick up a needle, a bag, or a bottle of liquor or pills, it may be your last bender.
Many experts recommend that individuals very new on the road to recovery should not try to analyze too deeply on the reasons why they became addicted in the first place. The saying is “DON’T THINK AND DON’T DRINK“, but the philosophy works equally well for drug addiction.
This strategy of purposely learning not to think when emotions become too high is also referred to as distraction because the individual engages in whatever activity that works to occupy the mind so fully that painful emotions have no place – exercise, prayer, meditation, and that old standby – meetings, meetings, meetings.
Distraction works. As a strategy of emotional regulation, it doesn’t allow unwanted emotional data to enter consciousness at all. This makes it an ideal coping mechanism for the highly-intense jumble of unpredictable emotions, and during early recovery.
Distraction is a not-very-refined mental tool that can be quickly and easily utilized to overcome potentially harmful or overwhelming negative emotions. It does not require the acquisition of any new mental skills, and there is virtually no limit to the activities that can be used to occupy the mind.
Emotions cannot be healthily avoided forever, however, so an alternate strategy is reappraisal, in which the recovering addict accepts the feelings and tries to reinterpret or reevaluate them in order to gain a greater understanding of the emotion and its underlying cause.
Because this is a learned mental skill that improves with practice, reappraisal becomes most effective during later recovery, after the individual has gained the necessary expertise and finesse. At first, the reappraisal is best suited for the least-intense negative emotions.
The Best Strategy?
The best technique for dealing with powerful emotions during recovery seems to be a combination of both strategies. At first, a person with virtually no emotional control may simply want to distract themselves from virtually all unbidden strong emotions.
However, as the brain begins to regulate itself and it becomes easier to maintain balance, the line of demarcation may begin to move. Less intense emotions can tentatively be reappraised, while harsher, less pleasant memories and emotions might be dealt with through distraction.
Distress and discomfort – and by extension, the risk of relapse – is greatly lessened, because the recovering addict can switch between the two strategies as necessary as they gain emotional strength and stability and a greater degree of control over their feelings.
With practice, the person’s emotional state should improve organically – on the one hand, with continued abstention, the brain’s chemistry will slowly begin to return to normal. On the other hand, reappraisal will begin to be utilized more often than the distraction, because of the individual, now not so emotionally fragile, will be able to handle stronger feelings and process them accordingly.
It is important to remember that the key to regaining emotional sobriety during recovery is to continue to practice actual physical sobriety. After months, years, or even decades of chronic drug and/or alcohol abuse, the chemistries of both the brain and the body need to have time to return to normal.