There is a significant link between emotions and substance use. Most people start using because of the euphoric or calming feelings that psychoactive drugs can create. People often turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with a stressful day, bad news, or to help them feel accepted when they are lonely or socially anxious.
For many regular users, drugs and alcohol often move from being an occasional form of stress relief to being an important part of their ability to cope with difficult emotions. Positive experiences and excitement can also trigger the urge to use, with people turning to substances to celebrate important milestones and during exciting events like concerts, parties, and sports games.
Throughout the course of addiction, feelings often take a back seat to using. Most addicts are not able to take care of their emotional needs while dealing with the unrest and instability of addiction and the relentless cravings to use. This often leads to periods of extreme emotional self-neglect, in which an addict can start to feel isolated, numb, and disengaged from the outside world.
As you start taking care of your emotional needs again in sobriety, feelings and emotions that you may have been dulling for many years tend to reemerge. In early recovery, it is common to experience joy, sadness, compassion, and empathy in new ways that can be both exhilarating and overwhelming. In early recovery, you will also likely experience many people, places, and feelings that have mental associations with drugs and alcohol and may trigger the urge to use.
Learning how to cope with these emotional triggers without turning to the familiar effects of drugs and alcohol takes practice. Positive self-care and working on some basic emotional wellness skills can create a safety net in which you can learn to experience your feelings in a more comfortable way and overcome triggers to use. Here are a few strategies to help.
First, try to become aware of your emotions. Simply being able to stop and think about your feelings as they are happening can lessen the effect they have on you. Being able to see your emotions as they come, put a label on them, and accept their temporary presence in your mind and body gives you the opportunity to decide how to respond to your feelings instead of falling prey to the automatic thoughts and behaviors they can provoke. Being aware and mindful of your emotions as they come and go puts you back in the driver’s seat and provides you with choices about how to respond. Keeping a journal of your thoughts and triggers can help you become more aware of your overall patterns and track progress also.
Second, work on building a stronger mind-body connection. Emotions often trigger a physical response that is linked to the reward center in your brain. After years of responding to a certain situation or feeling by using, it will take time to break these mental associations. Learning what physical feelings you experience when you’re triggered can help. Practices like yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises can put you more in touch with your body, which helps you sense triggers as they come. Practices like these can also serve as positive tools to help you overcome triggers without using by calming your mind and body. Something as simple as taking long, deep breaths while counting to five as you inhale and exhale can trigger your nervous system to start calming you down when a craving hits. These crucial few seconds of mind-body awareness help you overcome the craving and recenter yourself.
Third, find some positive coping skills to help get you through moments to emotional distress. Keeping an item like a “worry stone” to rub between your fingers when feeling anxious is an example of a sensory-based strategy to calm the mind and body. Other strategies like getting up and taking a walk, listening to music, coloring, hitting a punching bag, or playing with a pet can help you get through emotional triggers without using.
Another important resource in recovery is your support network of friends. Going to meetings and getting to know other addicts helps build a solid group of people who can help you cope during even the most difficult moments of your sobriety. When you’re feeling extremely triggered and your mind starts racing, calling someone who can help you process and endure the experience can sometimes mean the difference between using and staying sober.
It’s important to find strategies of emotional awareness, mind-body connection, and coping skills that work for you. Investing in your emotional wellness and social connections can help you stay on top of emotional triggers and endure cravings and difficult moments without using drugs or alcohol.
Chris Clancy is the in-house Content Manager for JourneyPure’s Digital Marketing team, where he gets to explore a wide variety of substance abuse- and mental health-related topics. He has more than 20 years’ experience as a journalist and researcher, with strong working knowledge of hospital systems, health insurance, content strategy, and public relations. He lives in Nashville with his wife and two kids.