Emotional Management: A Skill For Mastering How You Feel

Developing skills to manage your emotional states is crucial if you want to develop long-term sobriety. While the initial phase of recovery is often met with a ‘Pink Cloud’ or Honeymoon period, it is very likely that once the newness of recovery wears off the newly sober addict or alcoholic will encounter depression, mood swings, confusion, memory loss and an inability to regulate their emotions due to brain chemistry that has yet find homeostasis. In this article I offer concrete and specific ways you can approach your “emotional mess” and posit solutions for managing feelings that are distressing to you.

If we take the position that addiction is largely the result of brain chemistry, it makes sense to me that we would approach a medical problem with a medical solution. Make an appointment with your medical provider to discuss the possibility of being assessed for anti-depressants. The effect of chemical use tends to create an experience where your world can feel very small. I suspect this is due to your brain’s inability to produce the required brain chemistry for normal cognitive and emotional functioning. A lack of the appropriate neurotransmitters can make you feel like you don’t have the needed emotional bandwidth required to face the day-to-day challenges. Utilizing available pharmacology and today’s research can go a long way in helping you develop a sense of ease in your recovery.

Developing skills to reframe what you are thinking is crucial if you want to stay sane. One of the biggest lessons we learn in recovery is that we need to come to a place where we don’t personalize everything. There’s a host of information available on the web if you’d like to do further study, but I would like you to consider the following ideas:

1) Take responsibility for your distress. While negative events happen, it is important to realize that you are only responsible for your part in the situation. Make an effort to talk to a trusted friend to get clarification on your part in a situation as well as where your responsibility ends.
2) Remind yourself that you cannot control the timing, the outcome, or how you feel. You are only responsible for what you think. By focusing on what you think you can change how you feel.
3) Try to see the good in every situation. My grandparents lived through four years in a Nazi concentration camp. When something negative happened to my grandmother after she and grandfather were released from Auschwitz, she would talk about “seeking the gift” in every situation. She suggested there were three reasons people were unable to seek the gift: 1) the problem (or opportunity) doesn’t come wrapped in the package you’re used to seeing, 2) sometimes the opportunity doesn’t happen on your time table, and 3) sometimes the problem doesn’t happen for us, it happens for someone else, and we are merely the conduit. My grandmother made sure that every time I was upset that I remembered that a gift existed in every situation

Realize that bad stuff happens. My wife has Cancer. I do not see this as karma nor do I believe that ‘everything happens for a reason’. I see ‘everything happens for a reason’ as a trite way to wrap your brain around something you do not understand. My wife has a family history of Cancer on both sides of her family. It was very likely that no matter what she did, she would have contracted this horrible disease. I do not spend a lot of time thinking about why bad things happen, they just do. Recognizing that bad stuff happens regardless of what we do or believe lets me remember that bad stuff happens, and it’s okay

When I worked for the Department of Corrections we offered various forms of therapy to the offenders to support them to challenge their thinking patterns. One such intervention was MRT or Moral Reconation Therapy. Two tidbits from MRT stick with me years later: 1) we need to learn to live justly in an unjust world, and 2) we need to give up the way we think the world should work. I like both of these interventions as it is a reminder that I only have so much power in terms of what happens with an outcome.

To continue:

Focus on what you want versus what you don’t like. Be mindful of what you think and how you feel. Get clarity on a situation.

Find a therapist. While you might feel like you can be objective, I would suggest that it is likely that there are places where you get stuck in your thinking. By following through on therapy you can find a confidant, get impartial feedback, learn to become more objective, develop compassion for yourself and your situation, and give yourself a gift of greater clarity. My sense is that therapy is one of the best ways to take care of yourself. Talking to a mental health professional can be the first step in supporting yourself if you have a sense that you might have a mental health condition which requires additional attention.

I’m sure that when I mention exercise you’ll nod your head in agreement as I won’t be surprised that you’ve heard this suggestion before. Exercise does a few things. 1) It’s a form of meditation as in my view meditation is the act of focusing on one thing at a time. While you might be thinking of other things when you exercise, there is a likelihood that you’re engaged in an activity that requires your attention and supports you to be mindful of the task at hand. 2) Exercise is known to lower stress in that it helps diminish the levels of Cortisol. Cortisol has an immunosuppressive effect, meaning that if your body constantly has high levels of this compound you are more likely to be susceptible to illness, infection, stress or disordered thinking.

Gratitude List?? I am not going to suggest a gratitude list as I do not believe that forced gratitude is helpful. If you feel bad and I tell you that you need to feel grateful, the benefit of developing a gratitude is lost. Instead, I would invite you to focus on what makes you feel good and then think about all of the good stuff in your life, however small.

Work on developing goals. Following through on both long and short-term goals can help reduce distress as you are faced with the idea that you have control of the future and your place in it. When you develop a list of goals, try to think of them in terms of a time frame (no time frame, no goal – without a time frame you are giving yourself an out) and then ask for help if needed. Very often I like to page through magazines and place a picture that represents each goal on a piece of butcher paper so that I can be reminded of what I want and why it’s important.

Developing friendships are important for obvious reasons. I know the times that I reach out to my friends I am better able to handle the hard stuff. I have learned that it is okay to ask for help. Asking for help doesn’t mean that you are less of a person for needing help, it simply means you are human.

Focus on possibility and options versus issues and problems. I am reminded of a client who didn’t want to leave his house as he had a warrant for his arrest for not showing up for court. He was very concerned that he would get picked up for not following through on his obligations. My suggestion was to remember that “many things are possible but not likely”. What feels better?

Practice, Practice. Practice. While I do believe that sobriety is a gift and that the people in our world are better for it, nothing worth doing is easy. It takes concerted effort and focused discipline to get what we want. When you begin to understand that you are not a victim and that you have power in a situation, you begin to make changes that support better emotional management.

Lastly, I would STRONGLY encourage you not to continue to label things as addictive or alcoholic behavior, rather, it is important to remember you are human. Is it addict behavior to want to drink, or are you simply human because you want to feel better and less distressed?

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