Emotions are the powerful force that make watching a sunrise or experiencing art moving and memorable. They add the warm fuzzy feeling to a mother’s hug and create the calm in petting a puppy that bonds you to that animal. Unfortunately, not everyone experiences the positive side of emotions.
There are also emotions that can be dark and scary. Some emotions create that empty feeling inside that you believe nothing could ever fill. Negative emotions can erode your sense of wonder and enthusiasm for life and move you to paralysis. It is these emotions that many people fighting addiction are hiding from.
Addiction often develops because substances are used to mask emotions. This may be a conscious or unconscious choice, but the result is similar. That euphoric feeling, the extreme elation over nothing at all, the departure from reality that you experience while taking drugs can keep you from dealing with the real emotions of your life.
Trauma is one thing that elicits an overload of emotions that some people cannot process and eventually leads to addiction. Statistics show that people who experience trauma, for example, are four times as likely to become alcoholics later in life. The trauma fills them with emotions they cannot or will not process because they are afraid.
The natural outcome is that when the drugs are removed from your system in recovery, raw emotions are there just beneath the surface. In some ways, this is both the most productive and the most overwhelming part of recovery. Addiction recovery programs are designed to help process these old emotions and teach you strategies to deal with new emotions as they arise.
It is important to learn how to deal with strong emotions in addiction recovery.
Your Brain on Drugs
Substances that create a euphoric high act on brain chemicals. There are chemicals in your brain called neurotransmitters that create your thoughts. Each idea, thought or sensory response you have is a result of several neurotransmitters moving through your central nervous system. They operate in a complex combination to form thoughts and create emotions.
Neurotransmitters are created in your brain, and they move throughout your central nervous system on various structures in your brain cells. Some structures emit these chemicals, and other components receive them. The result is contingent on a number of factors including how much of which chemical is produced and how and where it is received.
Drugs operate on your brain by getting involved in this delicate communication process. Your brain, like the rest of your body, strives for balance. When it senses too much of a particular chemical, it slows down production or increases production of something else to counteract it.
When drugs enter the mix, they either mimic a particular brain chemical or they block your brain from receiving a certain neurotransmitter. This is how they create the high. For instance, if you drink too much alcohol, you may feel the room spinning around you. The room is not actually moving, of course, but the alcohol has interfered with your sensory perceptions and made it seem that way. Hallucinogenic drugs do this in the brain in more specific ways, making you believe you are seeing and hearing things that are really not there.
While your brain is being tricked by various chemical substances, you are not processing your real thoughts and experiencing the emotions that go with them. When these drugs are removed from your system through medically supervised detox, your real thoughts slowly come back. You remember the trauma, and you start to feel emotions related to it for the first time in years.
Those drugs that have been flooding the pleasure centers of your brain with feel-good chemicals are gone. Your brain stopped making its own feel-good chemicals because of the influx. Now you have an extreme low of emotion until your brain can increase its production again. Even when it is back up and running properly, though, your brain cannot produce the level of feel-good chemicals those drugs were giving you. This requires a major adjustment and results in a lot of negative emotions. Ultimately, you have to learn how to deal with emotions all over again.
Gaining Emotions in Recovery
The initial part of recovery, detox, is meant to remove the drugs from your system. This is mostly a physical process of simply abstaining from use and watching your vital signs as, over time, the drugs move out of your system. Detox can be dangerous, and should always be done under medical supervision.
Detox will often lead to withdrawal, which involves physical changes that take place as your body adjusts to the absence of drugs. Withdrawal symptoms can include:
- Irregular heartbeat
Along with these symptoms, emotions tend to creep in during detox as well. It can be very scary to give up the substance that you believe is keeping you alive and keeping you from feeling pain. When these symptoms of withdrawal start, it is common to develop depression and a very gloomy outlook for your future. This is another reason that detox requires medical supervision.
When detox is behind you, you will feel a bit more normal. This is when the emotional rollercoaster really begins. It is important to remember that recovery is a process and the emotions you feel represent progress along this journey. Although these emotions may be painful and scary to face, with the help of your therapy team, you can deal with them and move on with your journey.
How to Process Emotions
When people hold back emotions for a long time, one thing they fear is that if they let the emotions into their conscious mind, they will never leave. You may be afraid that if you start crying, you will never stop. It feels like there is this mountain of emotional pain inside of you, and you don’t dare let go of it. It feels like it could consume you.
The other fear is that if you release those emotions, you do not know what you will do to yourself or others. Out-of-control emotions tend to elicit a physical response, and you are afraid if you allow yourself to feel these horrible emotions building up inside of you, you will act irrationally, scream and yell, pull your hair out, attack someone who has hurt you or just generally go crazy.
The thing about emotions that seems kind of counter-intuitive is that you have to feel them to get rid of them. A basic example is when you lose a loved one. It is natural to feel sad and cry. If you do not cry, that emotion gets stuck inside you and builds. One day you may be in the grocery store and bump into someone and get hysterical.
If it doesn’t come out, you may begin experiencing physical symptoms. You may develop irritable bowl syndrome, stomach ulcers or any seemingly unrelated breakdown of your physical health. The emotion you hold inside grows larger and has to come out some way.
This is one way that pent-up emotions can lead to addiction. If you turn to substances to keep you from feeling that emotion, you could become addicted. Then, you reach a point where you are just desperate to get more of that substance and maintain your high, and you don’t even realize the emotions you are hiding from.
One of the problems with this approach of dealing with emotions, other than the extreme health risk of addiction, is that the emotion is still there. When you stop taking the substance and get help for your addiction, you still need to process that emotion for it to go away.
Processing Emotions in Recovery
Before the raw emotions of past trauma can be addressed and a healthy emotional intelligence can be built, recovery begins with some indoctrination. Specific steps are taken to be sure the client feels comfortable and supported in the treatment environment. Here are some of the initial concepts that are explored:
- Education – Clients learn some basic facts about addiction, what it means, how it happens and how it can be overcome. Learning about their situation in an objective sense can help reduce negative self-judgements that only work against the healing process.
- Hope – By initiation into a therapy group and familiarity with other people’s situations and where they are in their recovery, clients gain hope. It is important to maintain a sense of hope throughout recovery, especially on the difficult days. Hope, the belief that addiction can be overcome and life can become happy and fulfilling without substances, keeps clients in the program and working toward their goals.
- Family – The therapeutic group becomes a model family for the participants, and it is used to understand and resolve issues related to family dynamics in the natural family. Family is an important social structure that can provide the support needed for clients to progress through the program to a lasting recovery.
- Universality – Clients see very quickly in the therapeutic group that they are not alone. Despite the fact that 23.5 million people struggle with addiction, it can result in a dangerously lonely feeling. Almost everyone who enters rehab feels like their story is unique and no one will understand it. In reality, while there are some differences in addiction stories, there is a lot of similarity. Becoming initiated into a therapy group and hearing everyone else’s story will make you understand you are not alone. People are struggling with similar issues right alongside you.
- Altruism – Members of a therapy group reach out to help each other. Each person is at a different point in their journey and has something to offer the others who are coming up behind them. Helping others increases your confidence, building you up for the tough work of facing your emotions.
Once you are initiated into the therapy program, various therapy techniques are used to help you uncover the root of your emotions. With professional guidance, you will face those emotions a little at a time, exploring the traumatic event that may have started everything. Ultimately, you will learn that something happened in your life that you tucked away in your brain and never processed.
You may have been too young at the time to fully deal with the incident. Or you may have been overwhelmed by the incident and unable to process all of your emotions. The emotions you have suppressed may not be from one horrible incident. They may have built up over time from a difficult but ongoing situation in your life. There are all sorts of reasons why people suppress their emotions and cover them up with substances.
Therapy will walk you through these emotions now at a pace you can handle. With the support of your therapeutic community and the counselors in your program, you can feel the pain of your emotions and then let them go. This is a process that takes time, but you will not remain in the pain of emotional turmoil forever. By diving into this part of your recovery and working hard, you can ensure the end is not far off.
Building Emotional Intelligence
With the old emotions brought to the surface and dealt with, you will feel much lighter. It is as if this weight you’ve carried around for years is taken away from you and you are free. The sense of relief when you are no longer hiding from any turmoil in your past is enormous. Some people wish they had just gone through rehab sooner to get to this point.
Emotions are an ongoing part of life, however, so this is not the end of the healing journey. No matter where your life takes you from here, there will be good and bad emotions to deal with. At this point in your recovery, it is important to learn some new strategies for processing emotions so you don’t go back to covering them up with substances.
Emotional intelligence begins with self control. You need to develop the ability to manage your own behaviors, impulses and feelings. A popular term for this is anger management. Anger tends to be one of the emotions that gets out of control for people very quickly. To maintain self control, you need to develop a deeper understanding of yourself and your emotions.
When you recognize your own emotions and understand where they are coming from, it is easier to separate them from your behaviors. Your boss may criticize your work, but you don’t go home and kick the dog. Instead of acting out your impulses, with emotional intelligence, you learn to reduce stress and solve problems effectively. You may still experience anger, but you can find a safe and appropriate outlet for that energy.
This also requires learning social awareness. When you recognize the emotional needs of others, it is easier to keep your own emotions in check. If you realize that your boss criticizes your work because he suffers from an inferiority complex, you will not feel as angry. It will be easier for you to resolve the situation by paying him a compliment and going home knowing you’ve outperformed the boss again.
It takes time and training in recovery to learn these nuances about other people. When you become more aware of the emotions of the people around you, it is easier to live in harmony with them. It is also easier to identify the people who are emotionally toxic for you and take steps to eliminate them from your life or at least reduce your exposure to them.
With self awareness and social awareness comes the next step of emotional intelligence — relationship management. Addiction makes it impossible to maintain healthy relationships, so everyone in recovery is starting over. You may find some relationships in your life that can be repaired, but even this takes some emotional intelligence to navigate. Recovery will teach you the skills you need to build and maintain healthy relationships.
Emotional intelligence requires some training, but it also improves with experience. Once you have safely negotiated a few emotional issues, you will gain confidence and get better at dealing with emotionally charged situations. Emotions are part of being human, so they are also involved in any type of relationship. Building emotional intelligence will help you make a smoother journey through long-term recovery.
Emotions as Relapse Triggers
When you come through rehab and you are feeling pretty good about your recovery, thoughts of relapse can ruin your day. Everyone is afraid of relapse at this stage because it would undo all the hard work you’ve done and send you back through detox.
Fortunately, part of gaining emotional intelligence in recovery is learning your relapse triggers. Everyone has certain things, people, places, foods, smells and situations that make their craving to use drugs come on strong. These are relapse triggers, the things that could trigger you to use again. For the most part, strategies are developed to avoid these triggers and keep you safely on the path to long-term recovery.
Emotions cannot be avoided, though, and they are very strong forces in your brain. They were likely involved in your initial addiction and, therefore, you want to watch out for them. One of the most common relapse triggers is emotions that are out of control.
Life will bring about emotions, and you have to feel them to move forward. But it is important to be able to manage your emotions according to the strategies you learned in rehab. Through your addiction, you developed a habit of hiding your emotions with substances. Habits are hard to break, especially this one.
You may have lived now for some time without using substances to cover your emotions. You have learned to deal with emotion in your life in a safe way. Then one day, you are surprised by a traumatic situation that causes you to experience extreme emotions. It is not impossible to think that your old habit of using drugs may kick in to help you through this difficult time.
When you notice your emotions starting to get out of control, it is time to ask for help. Do not think you can get through it alone. Do not wait until you have actually taken drugs to admit you need help. Call 12 Keys right away to avoid relapse.
At 12 Keys, we are experienced in helping clients build the emotional intelligence they need for a smooth and lasting recovery. We understand that sometimes, things come up in life that are just too big to handle alone. There is no shame in asking for help. Let us be there for you to guide you through this difficult time and restore you to your healthy, healing path.