In drug and alcohol rehab, emotion regulation is an important part of the recovery process. Recovering addicts learn to manage difficult emotions which, in the past, would have spiraled out of control and triggered substance use.
The concept of emotion regulation is based on the necessity for a full range of emotions in order to live a fulfilling life. For example, the goal is not to stop feeling sadness, because that would make it impossible to connect to the people and things in life that will inevitably be lost one way or another. Rather, the goal is to feel it in the moment, using mindfulness and CBT techniques to keep it from leading to destructive behaviors.
Emotion regulation is important for every single human being. However, for addicts it is a particularly important skill. Let’s evaluate what happens when you are unable to regulate emotions.
The Purpose of Emotions
Every emotion has a purpose. They developed so as to drive useful behaviors. Often, it is necessary to let these purposes play out. Anxiety is important as it motivates people to do what is necessary for survival purposes. Guilt is important as it keeps people from committing destructive and antisocial acts.
The problem is that people do not all experience emotions in the same way. Certain emotions are encouraged in one person’s childhood while they are discouraged for another person. Some emotions are praised by society while others are scorned.
For this reason, emotions often stay beyond their purpose or end up leading to the exact opposite reaction. Recovering addicts are particularly susceptible.
The following emotions, when justify unregulated, often lead to destructive behaviors in recovering addicts.
Guilt is incredibly important for the wellbeing of a society. However, the things that trigger guilt in individuals are not necessarily healthy. This is especially true for people who grew up with a manipulative parent who used guilt to get their way.
The reason guilt can be destructive for addicts is that it is an emotion that demands a response. It tells you to do something to alleviate the guilt. For some recovering addicts, this feeds into unhealthy relationship patterns which cause dysfunction in their lives. The same dysfunction in which the addiction started.
For other recovering addicts, the guilt may seem impossible to alleviate with actions, as it relates to scenarios that are difficult or impossible to reverse. In this case, the guilt triggers substance use as a response to numb the feeling.
Emotional regulation skills help addicts experience the guilt without reacting. They also help addicts question the rationale behind the guilt, which may have been distorted by childhood experiences.
Anger is a dangerous emotion for recovering addicts because it is particularly action-oriented. This is not always a bad thing, as reacting with anger is sometimes necessary. Anger can be compared to a hammer. It is very useful when you need to hammer a nail, but if you try to use it to fix anything else, it is incredibly destructive.
When not regulated, anger can lead to the destruction of social and work relationships, as well as causing reckless behaviors. Emotional regulation skills help addicts pause before reacting to anger, as well as the ability to discern whether anger is the primary emotion. Anger is often a reaction to another emotion, such as hurt.
Many people struggle with sadness. Men in particular are told as children that expressing sadness is a sign of weakness and that they should just “get over it.” But even people who grew up with a healthy relationship to sadness can struggle when dealing with a major loss.
In certain circumstances, the cause of the sadness can theoretically be reversed. After a bad breakup, for example, getting the person back might seem like a solution. However, even then, things rarely pan out that way. Usually, sadness is an emotion that cannot be “fixed.”
As such, many people turn to substances to numb the feeling, even if they do not have a substance abuse problem. Learning to regulate sadness is therefore important for every human being. But for a recovering addict, it is crucial. Sadness is not bad. It is a sign that you form connections in life. Emotional regulation skills teach you how to feel it without getting stuck in the feeling.
Along with anxiety, loneliness, shame, and others, these are some of the most common emotions that trigger substance abuse when not regulated. However, all emotions can be destructive when avoided or unregulated. Emotion regulation is one of the most important skills recovering addicts learn in rehab. It teaches you to incorporate a full range of emotions so that it is possible to live a fulfilling life and make real connections.
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