Depression, anxiety, shame and guilt are emotions that nobody likes to experience. Unfortunately, when you are in recovery from sex, love, food, money, especially early on, these emotions are often present. Sometimes depression and anxiety symptoms are from post acute withdrawal. Other times, depression and anxiety problems were present before your drug and alcohol addiction and now that you are no longer using, they are back. If you can’t relate with anxiety and depression symptoms, you most certainly can relate to feelings of guilt and shame. Anyone who has struggled with uncontrollable problematic behaviors, has several actions, behaviors or events that has caused guilt and/or shame. Not only can these emotions be intense now that you are no longer engaging in the behavior that was used to numb / reduce your feelings, but you may have no idea how to cope with your emotions without engaging in compulsive behaviors.. Learning to identify and manage emotions is an important step in recovery.
The first thing to work on is learning to identifying your emotions. That may sound easy, but for some people identifying your emotions is anything but easy. If you have spent a large part of your recent past actively compulsively engaging in the behavior, you are likely not in tune with what your emotions are when you have them. For example, you may know when you are “upset” but what does that actually mean? Are you angry, sad, anxious? Or is it something else like shame or embarrassment? Ask yourself these questions:
- What emotion am I feeling? Is it anger, guilt, shame, anxiety, loneliness, etc. Am I feeling more than one emotion? What kind of physical sensations am I having?
- Is there a particular situation that has me upset? If so, what is it and why does it upset me? What are my thoughts about the situation?
- If there is no particular situation, ask yourself what thoughts am I having right now? It is important to understand that our thoughts often influence our emotions. For example, if I think that I am not worth anything and have nothing to contribute to the world, I am going to feel depressed. If I am worried that I am going to let someone down, I will feel anxious. Write down any thoughts that you are having.
Tuning into physical sensations can be helpful in identifying emotions. For example, anxiety can result in muscle tension, churning stomach, and shortness of breath. Sadness can feel like a pit in the bottom of your stomach, feeling fatigue, and having a headache. These are common sensations for these emotions but you may find that your physical sensations may be different.
Keep in mind that you are capable of feeling more than one emotion at a time as well. For example, you may feel anxious and sad if a good friend is moving away but also happy at the same time. Identifying your emotions is first step because if you slow down to figure out what you are feeling, you can then make a thoughtful decision about how to respond.
Coping with Your Emotions:
Now what do you do with these emotions? It is very common for individuals with problematic behaviors to engage in the behavior compulsively to mask their feelings. You may have no idea how to handle them now except to use or if you did have some coping skills in the past you may have lost them. Coping skills are essential but it is important to understand that their goal is to help you manage and tolerate emotions. They are not meant to make emotions go away or to mask them with chemicals. It is important to feel emotions. Emotions let us know if something is wrong or what we need to address. For example, feeling shame/guilt about your past behaviors indicates that you may need to make amends to others and that you need to work on forgiving yourself for past behaviors rather than allowing them to define you.
Emotions can also feel painful and sometimes overwhelming so we need ways to manage them effectively. When feeling painful emotions remember that they will pass. They do not stick around indefinitely. As stated before, their purpose is to give us a message and let us know what we need to address. Below are some basic coping strategies to help you tolerate and manage them.
- Deep Breathing and Meditation - Deep Breathing can help to calm your body and keep you out of your head and grounded when you are feeling a strong emotion. Try breathing in for a count of four, holding for a count of 7, and exhaling for a count of 8. Repeat as many times a necessary. Similarly, engaging in a guided meditation can be very helpful to relax your body. Try looking for apps with guided meditation or guided meditation videos on Youtube.
- Exercise - Exercise is a great outlet for negative emotions. Again it helps you to engage your body in an activity to get out of your head.
- Journaling/Writing - It can be very helpful to get your thoughts out on paper in some form. For some that could include just free form writing. For others it could be writing song lyrics, writing a story, writing a poem etc.
- Talk with someone - Find someone with whom you feel comfortable such as a sponsor, family member or friend. It can be very powerful to talk out your feelings.
- Engage in an activity that you enjoy - engaging in something you like can be a distracting activity that can help you manage strong emotions.
- Go to more meetings - If feeling different emotions causes cravings and urges to surface, attend some more meetings than usual. As you are getting used to learning how to cope with emotions, you will likely need more support managing urges and cravings to use.
Remember, these are examples of some basic positive coping strategies to use to manage your emotions. They will not take the emotion away. Coping strategies just making it easier to feel them.
A Special Note About Grief and Past Trauma:
Strong and diverse emotions are common when we are grieving or experiencing emotions stemming from a trauma. While these emotions also pass, it takes time to deal with grief and past trauma. You will likely need some extra support to manage grief and trauma emotions as well as cravings and urges to use as you process through these feelings.
Learning to manage and tolerate emotions is a skill. If you have had difficulty managing them before they behaviors feel out of control or compulsive, you will likely have difficulty managing them in your recovery. Or you may just have difficulty managing them in recovery because you are so used to avoiding and medicating them. Seeing a therapist can be a good way to learn how to manage emotions effectively. If you would like to make an appointment with a therapist at The Center for Growth Inc. please call 215-922-5683 x 100. Find a therapist near me.