Coping with Negative Emotions in Addiction Recovery
When you first get clean from drugs, you experience a great sense of relief, even euphoria. For a while, it feels as though you will never have another problem.
That “while” may last until your first post-detox therapy session makes clear you have a lot of challenging changes still to make. It may last until you return to your everyday world and realize life isn’t going to reward your achievement by banishing the pressures you were trying to relieve with drugs. If you have the luxury of taking additional time off with few responsibilities, the “honeymoon” may even last for weeks after rehab. But eventually, it will end—and negative emotions will start trying to displace the positive ones. Most commonly, these negative emotions include:
- Anxiety (fear of relapse, fear that people will never forgive you, fear you won’t be able to cope with so many changes)
- Frustration (that despite all you’ve learned, you still can’t make life consistently “run smoothly”)
- Resentment (of life’s “unfairness” and of others’ inability/unwillingness to understand your problems)
- Boredom and/or loneliness (if you’ve been dependent on drugs for a while, you’ve likely neglected all leisure activities and relationships that didn’t involve getting high)
- Depression (often an aftereffect of losing the artificial happiness of addiction, or of “coming down” from the major transition of detox—also, many people who develop addictions have medical depression as well)
This article will look at healthy strategies for coping with negative emotions during the journey through recovery and into long-term sobriety.
FIRST, DON’T BERATE YOURSELF FOR HAVING NEGATIVE EMOTIONS
Emotions themselves aren’t “good” or “bad”—they’re normal and often unavoidable reactions to circumstances. In many cases, “feeling bad” is a potentially good thing: like the pain from stepping on a nail or brushing against a hot stove, it can signal us to pull back and evaluate the situation, and make necessary adjustments, before we get seriously hurt.
Many addictions are rooted in unwillingness to face negative emotions: fearing consequences for admitting to angry/heartbroken/anxious feelings, people turn to artificial numbness or the relief of instant gratification, rather than exploring the real reasons behind the negative emotion. Also, after taking hold, most addictions make emotional numbness a way of life. With all that baggage, it can be terrifying when feelings start to come back after detox (anyone who’s had a leg fall asleep knows that the initial return of sensation, while an improvement on numbness, comes with a flood of discomfort). Don’t compound the agony by focusing on why you “shouldn’t” feel that way: discuss your feelings, concerns and desires with a therapist or support partner.
(Note: In a situation where you’d like to see a specific change in something that triggers your negative emotions, it’s best to state how you feel and what you want as objectively as possible, without putting negative labels on the other party. If you engage in what’s been called “trying to put out the fire by fanning the flame”—“venting” without consideration for others or hope of a real solution—all you’ll get back will be compounded mutual hostility.)
KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN NEGATIVE EMOTIONS AND NEGATIVE THOUGHTS
Negative emotions can be a tool for growth if you listen to what they’re really saying. Negative thoughts, on the other hand, amount to talking yourself into giving up. Feeling inadequate is a signal to examine your goals and what you need to change to achieve them: but if you react by consciously telling yourself, “I’m no good, I’ll always be a failure,” you’ll soon have little left but self-pity and depression—and perhaps relapse into addiction.
It’s important to let go of negative thoughts, but that doesn’t mean fighting or ignoring them—that approach often just makes them stronger. Practice letting the thoughts roll on by and out of your brain, as you bring in positive truths to replace them: “I know I can do this. I’ve overcome obstacles before and I’ll succeed again.”
CULTIVATE EMOTIONAL MATURITY
Nearly all addiction disorders are fed by living reactively rather than proactively, feeling like a victim, seeing little use in trying to make things happen and often not even being sure what you want to see happen. The opposite of this attitude is emotional maturity, an important ingredient in getting and staying sober. Emotional maturity doesn’t stop with controlling your temper: it means
- Knowing who you are and what you were made for
- Accepting life as it is now while having faith in better things to come
- Staying grateful for what you have while working to make things even better
- Working and waiting for what you really want to accomplish
- Wanting the best for everyone and everything, not just yourself or your “crowd”
- Believing in all the above strongly enough not to be swayed by criticism, circumstances or the lure of instant gratification
If your emotional maturity is stunted, the first steps toward growing it are:
- Evaluate your talents and passions—focusing on what calls to your heart, not what others think you should If you have difficulty, look back at childhood dreams of “when I grow up,” plus the past experiences that brought you the most joy. Don’t judge anything, just write it down.
- Pick a couple of short-term goals and one audacious goal based on your passions, and make a list of steps you’ll need to take to achieve each. Then schedule the first steps and get the momentum going.
- Find one or two optimistic friends (your sobriety support group is a good place to look) who will reinforce your belief in your goals and yourself, and who will hold you accountable to keep moving forward. Do the same for them.
- Every day, do something that reinforces one of your goals or passions.
- Every day, affirm out loud that you are a capable and effective person.
You’ll be surprised how much happier you soon become—and how much more good you do for others as well as yourself.
TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF
You’ll experience fewer negative emotions if you stay in good physical health, both overall and from day to day. Drinking too much coffee, skipping meals, staying up too late and getting flabby will all turn your general emotional state toward “grumpy and irritable.” Follow good health practices consistently—ask your doctor, if you aren’t sure where to start. And give yourself regular breaks, both physically and in terms of making allowances for not always getting everything exactly right.
And even when you feel negative, make a habit of talking positive—especially in terms of anticipating a joyful, sober future!
Other helpful posts about dealing with emotions and addiction: