They say the good thing about sobriety is that you get your feelings back. Of course, the bad thing about sobriety is that you get your feelings back. Emotions are not bad in and of themselves, but they can be difficult to manage. This becomes even harder after years of self-medicating. We numb ourselves using drugs and alcohol, but much of the pain that we should have felt during our addiction remains waiting for us beneath the surface. Our feelings want to be felt, and they will have their way whether we want them to or not. We need to learn the proper methods of dealing with emotions in recovery, lest they overtake us entirely.
Recovery presents us with numerous potential causes of emotional disturbance. In early sobriety, we may feel restless, irritable and discontent—especially when suffering from withdrawal symptoms. We may also feel grief. After all, we tend to forge a relationship with drugs and alcohol. This relationship may not be loving or healthy in any sense, but it’s familiar to us. Losing it will take its toll on us. But even after we overcome these negative emotions, we may swing too far to the other side. We become arrogant, feeling that we can conquer anything. At this point, many recovering addicts and alcoholics may fall off the wagon.
Emotions can cause us harm, but this isn’t news. In fact, it’s the very reason many of us tried so hard to avoid them in the first place. On the other hand, tapping into our emotions in a healthy and positive manner can give our sobriety much greater substance. We simply need to learn how to manage our feelings in a way that benefits us. This takes practice, but there are a few basic tips we should follow if we wish to turn our emotions into our greatest allies in sobriety.
Take Care of Your Health
Our health affects our emotions in a number of ways. If we eat unhealthy foods, neglect our physical fitness and go days without sleep, we’re not going to be too well-adjusted. At best, we might find ourselves in a manic phase, which may result in spending sprees, relapse, or other harmful behaviors. We must nurture both our physical health and our mental health if we wish to keep our emotions balanced.
We usually find it best to start by focusing on our physical health, since we often suffer nutritional deficiencies during addiction. Not only does nutrition benefit our mental health, but exercise helps us regulate our emotions as well. We don’t necessarily need to start a hardcore exercise regimen on our first day of sobriety, but we should definitely work diet and exercise into our daily routine. Over time, this will help balance out the chemicals in our brains and help us to regulate our emotions a bit better. We might take one cheat day per week, but we shouldn’t indulge ourselves for too long or else we risk losing the progress we have gained.
Sleep benefits us quite a bit as well. During early recovery, many addicts and alcoholics suffer from insomnia. We find that we grow accustomed to passing out rather than falling asleep normally. It takes time for us to get our insomnia in check, but we’ll start to find ourselves on a more even keel once this happens. This is because lack of sleep affects the amygdala, which helps us to regulate negative emotions such as anxiety and depression. By giving this part of the brain some much needed rest, we can reset ourselves and reduce our emotional dysfunction.
Many addicts and alcoholics suffer from co-occurring mental or emotional disorders, so we must ensure that these receive proper attention as well. Some people have reservations about taking anti-depressants or other medications, but we don’t do ourselves any favors by allowing mental illness to run our lives. Sometimes we simply need to suck it up and accept that we need help, much as we did when we entered recovery. Additional tools such as meditation and counseling will also go a long way toward securing our mental and emotional health. If we aren’t doing everything we can to nurture our health, then we can’t be surprised when our emotions take a turn for the worse.
Take a Few Steps Back
We often have trouble seeing ourselves objectively. Sometimes we become prideful or arrogant after a few things go our way. We feel like we can take on anything, including our addiction. This especially happens after a month or so in sobriety. We went this long without drinking or abusing drugs, so clearly we’re ready to try them in moderation. While this may work for some people, many spiral out of control before long. They then find themselves wondering how things got so out of hand, despite choosing to let them get out of hand in the first place. When we feel ourselves becoming too manic, sometimes we just need to take a step back and look at things from a more objective standpoint.
This applies to our negative emotions as well. Those who suffer from substance abuse issues often beat themselves up for their own feelings. It starts when something causes us to feel angry, upset, frightened or even guilty. Then, we suddenly find ourselves feeling angry, upset, frightened or guilty over those very same emotions. We blame ourselves for our feelings, telling ourselves that we must be failing in recovery. This is because we often hold unrealistic expectations of ourselves. Sobriety doesn’t mean non-stop happiness. Negative emotions are a part of life, and we must accept that. Otherwise, they start getting the better of us and standing in the way of our sound judgment.
Not only do we feel ashamed of our negative emotions, but we often downright despise them. It feels as if someone or something is punishing us for getting sober. Perhaps we misdirect these emotions, taking them out on family, friends, or members of our support group. If only our sponsor hadn’t tried to coax these feelings out of us, everything would be just fine. Except that it wouldn’t be fine at all. Nobody created these feelings. We can’t blame them on making amends or facing our character defects. Truthfully, we can’t blame them on anyone. Emotions are a part of life. They’re simply a part of life we’ve tried to avoid for some time. And if we try to get rid of them again by turning back to drugs and alcohol, we’ll only continue to bottle them up.
Both our substance abuse and our emotional neglect will eventually become hazardous to our health if not confronted properly. This is why we need a healthy support network in the first place. We need people to whom we can reach out when we find ourselves struggling. These people will allow us to talk through our emotions. And, more often than not, we’ll find ourselves feeling better once we get these things off our chest. The pain itself may not subside immediately. But that pressure, that physical feeling as if someone were stepping on our chest? That becomes lifted almost immediately once we tap into our feelings while in the company of a friend, sponsor, counselor or other trusted individual.
So don’t avoid your negative emotions. Tap into them, and see where they take you. They just might be taking you toward feelings of freedom and stability. It’s simply too difficult to see it when we’re trying to look at it from the inside. That’s why we need an outside perspective if we are to survive in recovery. As for tapping into our positive emotions, that’s a different story. Fortunately, it’s actually much easier.
Choose Happy Emotions
People often tell us that happiness is a choice. But when we feel unhappy, this is more likely to annoy us than it is to inspire us. Because, to some extent, these people are wrong. Negative emotions occur naturally. As noted above, sometimes we must experience them in order to overcome them. Nonetheless, while we can’t control our first thought, we can control our second. And once we take a step back, it becomes easier to see when our negative emotions serve no purpose. Sometimes we allow ourselves to become gripped by jealousy or petty anger when these feelings do nothing for us. In these cases, happiness really is a choice. We must learn to make this choice when possible, or else our negative emotions will continue to overtake us.
The best way to achieve happiness is to focus on gratitude. When we feel at our lowest, it helps to look back over the past twenty-four hours. During a particularly rough patch, we may even need to look back over the past week. No matter how many curveballs life throws at us, there are likely positive influences in our lives. Are we taking these for granted? Do we suffer through an otherwise perfect day because of one negative moment? Even when something terrible happens, like the loss of a job or a loved one, do we still have everything we need to get through the next day? If you have the internet access required to read this article, then life clearly hasn’t taken everything away. Focus on that, and find a way to express gratitude for it.
Many say that sobriety requires a spiritual program. We sometimes get lost when looking for the spiritual, confusing spirituality with religion. But spirituality is an internal resource. There may be days that you absolutely hate yourself. On these days, you must remember your strengths. You clearly have what it takes to keep moving forward, or else you wouldn’t be here. Also, remember that even our negative emotions can be a source for gratitude. Bad people do not feel guilt. People do not feel fear unless they have something to lose. And nobody feels grief or sadness unless they had something to lose in the first place. We must feel these emotions from time to time. But each of these feelings gives us the choice of looking back and realizing just how truly blessed our lives have been.
Happiness doesn’t always come easy. But when it does, we must savor every moment. Sometimes, the briefest glimmers of light may return to guide us through our darkest hours. It falls upon us to tap into these emotions when we need them, allowing them to ease us through our pain. They may not remove the pain entirely, but they certainly make it easier to bear. As long as we remember this valuable internal resource, we will find that we can overcome just about anything without resorting to substance abuse. We may lose a crutch, but we gain something far greater—the ability to truly feel our own emotions without running and hiding from them. And with this, we can say that we are truly ourselves for the first time since we began abusing drugs and alcohol.