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Emotions can trigger relapse.
April 20, 2017

Reasonable Expectations: How to Minimize Relapse by Minimizing Frustration

Emotions can trigger relapse.If you violate your post-addiction abstinence—you’ve got plenty of company. The National Institute on Alcohol Use and Alcoholism, for example, reports that chances of making it through the first four years without a single sip of a drink may be as low as one in ten. Don’t despair: what counts is not whether you avoid falling, but how quickly you get up.

Nonetheless, it’s always better to minimize risk of relapse. You probably know your top triggers and how to avoid them. But you may not fully appreciate how emotions associated with those triggers—

  • anger
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • fatigue
  • frustration

—can find a variety of doors into your life.

Of these emotions, frustration is the most versatile. It comes when everything is going wrong and when an otherwise perfect day encounters a single inconvenience. It feeds tension in busy times and in lazy times. It’s an equal-opportunity nuisance to the worst inferiority complex and the most inflated sense of importance.

One thing all moments of frustration have in common, though: they rub it in that life doesn’t mind disappointing our expectations. The typical groan of frustration comes with thoughts of “I was counting on ….”

You can reduce the level of frustration in your life—and the risk of using it as an excuse for relapse—by trimming your expectations.

Don’t Expect to Be Able to Plan Everything Perfectly

Maybe it’s the computer age (or the litigation age) that convinces many they can head off every unpleasant contingency if they plan thoroughly enough. Then when an unexpected rainstorm or traffic delay throws their schedule off, they get doubly frustrated because “I deserved to have that schedule work after all the hard work I put into planning it.”

Better: Leave margin for unexpected delays, and have a rough Plan B ready in case something unexpected happens. (One problem with extensive planning is it generates a tendency to bet everything on the finished product.)

Don’t Expect Special Favors from Anybody (or Anything)

You know what’s an inconvenience to you, but the barista who mixes your latte doesn’t. The traffic lights that come up red don’t. Even acquaintances and coworkers don’t want to hear “I deserve better” complaints that, to them, only say you’re too selfish to value their needs.

Better: Don’t take it personally: remember that while the world isn’t designed for your convenience alone, it isn’t deliberately inconveniencing you. Cultivate patience and kindness toward the larger world and the individuals in it. Keep in mind that others have problems—often serious ones—you don’t know about, and most have understandable reasons for their annoying actions.

Don’t Expect Life to Get Easy

Most substance abuse begins with a desire to make life easier: to keep the mind off present struggles and future worries, or to relieve physical pain. By the time someone seeks treatment for consequent addiction, any “normal” life usually looks good by comparison. However, ordinary life’s everyday pressures will still be there when you return to normalcy. If you aren’t careful, once the worst pains of addiction are forgotten, the exhilaration and hope of completed treatment may give way to “nothing’s any use” frustration—and to relapse.

Better: Have clear long-term goals for your future. Make a written pledge to “God, yourself and another human being” (as in the 12 Steps, Step 5) to take some steps toward a goal every day, and to not let felt obligations and others’ expectations fill up your time. As extra insurance, make a list of small steps to each larger goal, and write them into your official planner.

Attend support-group meetings regularly, and share your progress and disappointments. Develop the habit of evaluating each new opportunity and request with, “Does this fit my life purpose and goals?”

Don’t Expect All-or-Nothing from Yourself

Many recovering addicts who relapse, decide “I knew I was hopeless” and go back to full addiction—or at least make the return to recovery harder by berating themselves and otherwise focusing on their “failure.”

Better: If you do slip and take “just one” shot, be as kind to yourself as you would to any loved one who made a mistake. Remind yourself, “Failing doesn’t mean I’m a failure. I’m strong even though I’m not perfect. I’ll get back into sobriety right away.”

Recovery, like life itself, is a journey and not a destination. Remember that and the journey will be easier.

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