This week, Avalon is recognizing CMHA’s Mental Health Week and the theme of getting real about our emotions. In recovery, this can be particularly crucial to healing and long-term success. Active addiction involves avoiding emotions and choosing to use substances or participate in other addictive behavioural activities when confronted with difficult feelings to alleviate or numb the pain. In truth, this doesn’t erase any emotions, and they often come up to the surface with new clarity and depth in recovery. Today, we’re talking about the relationship between emotions and recovery, including the concept of awareness, common feelings and ways to move past them, and resources/outlets to help with emotional wellness and coping.
Relationship between recovery and emotions
Addicts often use as a means of escaping the reality of difficult circumstances and emotions, meaning their emotional needs are not met. This results in extended periods of emotional self-neglect, when they are active in addiction and feeling increasingly numb, alone, and separate from the outside world. When entering recovery, they are suddenly confronted by the emotions they pushed aside, tried to forget, or didn’t know existed at all. These feelings will be clearer and more lucid in sobriety.
Emotional pain doesn’t stop when you get sober, but sober emotions are productive and help you to express yourself and process experiences or traumas so you can move forward. If emotional wellness is the goal, you must develop an awareness of the moods and feelings you’re experiencing and the knowledge that these moods and feelings are valuable for your personal growth. Then, learn and commit to handling pain healthily instead of suppressing it.
The first step in learning to manage your emotions in recovery is to foster awareness around your emotional states, and how your feelings affect your thoughts and behaviours. Paying attention, being mindful intentionally – without judging yourself – is a great skill to cultivate and can improve your ability to face challenges calmly and effectively. Emotional awareness can also help you learn more about how your emotions relate to each other. Taking the time to pause and process your emotions as you’re feeling them can also lessen the effect that they have on you. Rather than letting automatic thoughts and behaviours run wild, you can see those emotions as they appear, label them, and accept that they will temporarily rest in your mind and body. From there, you have the power to decide how you want to respond to them.
Sometimes it’s just important to remember that most feelings are only experienced for a short period of time and that not every emotion requires a response beyond simply acknowledging that you’re feeling it. Meditation, yoga, and other similar mindfulness activities can help you develop a comfortability with sitting and observing a feeling as it passes through. Journaling can help you to grow your awareness of your personal triggers and thought processes as you record potential patterns and markers of progress. Moreover, emotional experiences follow a natural arc that includes a rise in intensity followed by a peak and decline. By remembering this, you can gain perspective on the temporary nature of a feeling and apply your coping mechanisms to attain equilibrium once again.
Common feelings that arise in recovery
- Guilt: This is one of the most natural emotions that can arise when you enter recovery, even more so in the early stages. Guilt has the ability to hold us in the past, but we can channel that remorse into a motivator for change. To let go and move forward, acknowledge the mistakes you’ve made and work to make amends. In the words of Oprah, “Don’t hold yourself hostage to who you’ve been or what you’ve done. When you know better, you do better.”
- Shame: Shame is the belief that there is something inherently wrong with you. It can leave you with low self-esteem, the belief that you can’t improve your life, and reinforce negative thought patterns. Moving towards emotional wellness in recovery requires self-forgiveness for the past – not letting go, per say, but learning to process your feelings constructively. Overcoming shame can require help from a counsellor, sponsor, close friend, and/or loved ones.
- Anger: Anger is common but important to stay mindful of. Although anger has the potential to create real lasting damage and self-destructive behaviour, it can also help you to express how you’re feeling deep down. Your experience of anger may feel clearer and more frequent now that substances are not interfering. It can rear its head in different ways depending on the person, but use your awareness practices and coping mechanisms to ensure you don’t use it destructively with outward aggression.
- Loneliness: Many aspects of sobriety can elicit feelings of loneliness. Not only are you losing the ability to turn to your addiction, you’re also losing the relationships that you’ve developed with people who have like-minded interests. Removing yourself from triggering environments or people is a necessary part of recovery and helps to ensure you don’t relapse, but that loss can leave you feeling alone. Loneliness can also arise out of the daily experiences of being in recovery among others who don’t understand what that’s like. It is therefore important to seek out new healthy relationships, potentially through 12-step groups or volunteering.
- Resentment: Resentment ultimately causes more harm to you than the person or thing you are resenting. Holding on to negative feelings from the past uses more energy and mental space than it’s worth, so the key is working towards forgiveness and getting back your time and peace of mind.
What can I do to help deal with my emotions?
There are many resources available to help you:
- Support networks: It helps to have someone trustworthy who you can talk to about how you’re feeling. The burden of holding in emotions can become too much to bear alone, so try speaking your feelings out loud and feel their intensity reduce as they get released from your body and mind. 12-step meetings and relationships with others in recovery can also be beneficial because they understand how a history of addiction plays into emotional responses. They can help you cope, process, and endure challenging experiences.
- Therapy or counselling: Professional help through therapy or counselling is an excellent resource through which you can learn more about your emotions and processing strategies. Going to one-on-one sessions regularly can provide an outlet to talk through what you’re feeling, ask questions as things come up in your life, and learn healthy coping mechanisms that will help you control your emotions. Having an outside perspective can also help you to recognize unhealthy habits you exhibit and discover ways to adjust. If available, seek out a therapist who is specifically trained in treating substance abuse. Avalon offers free counselling services to women in recovery. If you’re interested in learning more, you can call or email us using this info.
- Mindfulness: This goes beyond popular practices like meditation and yoga. Mindfulness is about intentionally being present in the moment and separating the now from the past and the future. It requires channelling all your focus into what you’re hearing, seeing, doing, feeling, etc. in that exact moment. This can free you from overthinking about the future and things you cannot control. Having mindfulness around our emotions can allow us to feel and accept them upfront.
After a long period of active addiction, you might not know how to manage simple everyday feelings. This is your reminder that you don’t have to have all of the answers right away. All you need to know with certainty is that being caught in the despair of addiction will not help. Dealing with past and present emotions will leave you feeling lighter, the weight of years of emotional distress lifted off you. Emotional healing is a lifelong journey, but by taking the time and effort to learn about and improve your processing strategies, you can set yourself up for long-term success in sobriety and your overall wellness and quality of life.