If there is one thing for which addicts and alcoholics are not widely known, it is our emotional stability. We may have our good days. We may spend years as high-functioning addicts and alcoholics, able to appear normal despite our intoxication. At times, we may even have others convinced that we really are better off when we are drinking or abusing drugs. But at some point, we will often see our folly. This often occurs at the end of a long downward spiral, more often than not caused by the onset of an emotional disturbance.
Emotional disturbance may affect us in many ways. Not only that, but it may spring from many different sources. Everyone has different triggers, and some people will react more strongly to certain emotional stimuli than others. An occurrence that might seem innocuous to some may set the addict on a train of thought that leads to dark places. The scary part is that this occurrence does not even have to be a bad one. Some of us will find our emotional disturbance spurred on by something that might make any other person happy.
If we are to learn how to regulate this emotional disturbance so that it does not get the better of us, then we must first understand the dangers that are posed. Then, we must learn how to monitor our thoughts and actions for signs that we are experiencing extreme highs or lows. In many cases, someone might tell us. We should not blow them off, but should heed their warnings. With a bit of mindfulness, we can learn how to better regulate our emotions and prevent them from threatening our sobriety.
The Dangers of Emotional Disturbance
While it may seem obvious, it needs to be said that one of the primary dangers of suffering emotional disturbance is that it sets us up for a relapse. One of the most integral parts of relapse prevention is learning to discover our triggers. But those of us who enter sobriety in treatment will only learn about so many of these triggers by the time we graduate. As such, we must be ready to discover many more of them by the time we walk out of those doors and back into the real world.
Even if relapse were not a factor, it shouldn’t surprise you to hear that emotional disturbance is never precisely ideal. Regulating our emotions is a big part of our overall routine for health maintenance. When our emotions are compromised, we may find that we stop paying as much attention to our hygiene or other physical health concerns. These are among the major signs of addiction, and it is a fair bet that anyone displaying these signs while in recovery is probably headed straight for a major relapse if they do not learn how to turn things around and operate a bit more calmly.
Emotional disturbance can also threaten our relationships with others. Addiction is generally a family disease, and it is not easy for them to see us on the path to relapse. Even our friends, employers, and others who have made our acquaintance would be better off to deal with us when we are a bit more emotionally sound. Our friends wish want to see us happy every bit as much as our families do. Our employers want us to be able to produce. Others simply do not prefer to spend their time around a killjoy (or even someone going through a manic phase). We will do great harm to ourselves and to our relationships if we allow emotional disturbance to run its course unchecked.
Extreme Negative Emotions: Lows
Negative emotions constitute arguably the highest percentage of emotional disturbances you will encounter. This type of emotional disturbance might be denoted by extreme feelings of anger or depression, as well as the exhibition of character defects such as self-pity, self-loathing, or even simply a vague feeling that all is not right. When we are in recovery, we may enter something of a denial stage when we are experiencing this sort of emotional disturbance, as we want people to believe that we are doing okay—even when we clearly are not.
A recent article of ours talked about HALT—the sensation of feeling especially hungry, angry, lonely or tired. Each of these can lead to an emotional disturbance. Hunger can lead to eating disorders, anger can lead to rage, loneliness can lead to a sense of isolation, and exhaustion has the tendency to lower our inhibitions almost as much as actual drugs and alcohol. Under any of these conditions, it may not be long before we inevitably find ourselves using our drug of choice once again.
There are many possible triggers for us to experience this type of supremely negative emotional disturbance. We may lose someone we love, whether this means the loss of a relationship or the death of the person themselves. We may lose jobs, houses, or other material necessities that make it hard for us to reason that sobriety has brought us much joy. When this happens, we must fight the urge to give up the time we have gained in recovery. We must remind ourselves that, although life is not perfect, we are much better at dealing with our problems now than we ever were when we were intoxicated.
Extreme Positive Emotions: Highs
It may sound odd, but even an extreme onset of positive emotion may constitute an emotional disturbance. This is not necessarily an emotional disturbance in the sense that it has caused us to feel something that makes us want to drink, although this is not outside the realm of possibility. We may have earned a new job or found success in some other pursuit, and our inclination is to commence a round of celebratory drinking. It may sound like harmless fun, but addicts and alcoholics should be aware of the effect that their drinking has had on others. As such, celebration is no excuse for the return of bad habits.
Some of us may not be able to help the occasional emotional disturbance. Among the many co-occurring disorders of alcoholism and addiction is bipolar disorder, which makes it difficult to regulate our emotions and often causes us to swing wildly from one pole to the other. Those of us who suffer from disorders such as this may be more inclined to feel a bit too celebratory on occasion. Others of us will simply ignore all reason, especially if our sobriety date is long enough passed that we assume there could not possibly be any harm.
It is not uncommon for people who are just around a year of sobriety to assume that they have cured themselves completely, and can return to normal drinking. This sort of delusion will almost always hurt them in the end, for they will soon find that they cannot enjoy their drinking once they have become aware of its effects on themselves and others. Those of us who become overzealous and think that we can drink on a date or at a party simply because we have been doing well are not going to be happy with the results. We may feel positive and celebratory in these moments, but this sort of emotional disturbance has a way of sneaking up on you when you least expect it.
Regulating Our Highs and Lows
The scary part of emotional disturbance is that, as discussed above, you may not always realize when it has its grip on you. This means that you will have to go out of your way to form a plan that will help you to recognize it early and to deal with it accordingly. The simplest thing is to stay in regular contact with your sponsor, and embrace the concept of honesty with everyone you know. The First Tradition of AA states that our personal recovery depends on unity, so strive for a sense of unity in your recovery community. If someone expresses a concern for you, be sure to listen.
If you went through treatment in one of our programs, then you might consider staying in one of our sober living facilities for a while after your program has ended. This will put you in constant contact with other recovering addicts and alcoholics, and this will enable you to seek their input on a much more frequent basis. Most people who go through treatment receive sober living as one of their aftercare plans, so this will not be too big a leap. If you have gotten sober without going to treatment, then you will have to put yourself out there and try to make friends at meetings. Then, you have to make sure that you continue to keep in touch with them.
In truth, there is no perfect way of regulating your emotions. Simply try to monitor them. Take a daily inventory, and do a spot-check every once in a while to see whether or not you might be putting your emotional health at risk by swinging too far to either extreme. As long as you continue to do this on a regular basis, it will get easier to see yourself from a more objective standpoint. Once you can do this, you will find that your emotions tend to stay balanced much more easily.