One significant contributor to the development of addiction is the inability to cope with strong emotions, such as fear, anxiety, anger, or shame. The inability to manage these intense emotions can lead to an alternative way of coping with them. Often, dysfunctional coping mechanisms develop such as drug use and drinking.
But, it’s true that it can be incredibly challenging to manage feelings when they are frightening or overwhelming, especially if they are from the past or the early years of childhood. Plus, uncomfortable feelings such as anger or shame might also be accompanied by fear, helplessness, and powerlessness. Intense emotions can lead to a need to shut down or feeling like you want to go unconscious rather than facing them. Getting drunk and getting high are ways to do just that.
Therefore, having tools that allow you to recognize and respond to emotions can facilitate sober living. Being able to recognize, versus repress, emotions is a form of emotional intelligence. It’s becoming aware of your emotional landscape. Emotional awareness involves the ability to:
- Recognize your moment-to-moment emotional experience
- Handle all of your emotions without becoming overwhelmed
Rather than reaching for a drink and going unconscious when difficult emotions arise, you respond to them. Rather than hiding from your emotions, you face them. Rather than drinking, you dive into what you’re feeling. The task is not an easy one.
However, here are some ways to help develop your emotional intelligence, which in turn, will prevent relapse and support your recovery.
Emotional awareness is learning how to manage stress. You won’t be able to manage your emotions unless you know how to manage stress. The two are inherently related. Because emotions are unpredictable, they can come on strongly at times and create a stressful experience. Learning how to manage emotions, similar to the ability to manage stress, depends first on your level of emotional awareness.
Become aware of your senses. The fastest way to move out of a stressful state is to become aware of one of your senses. In his wonderfully healing book, Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World through Mindfulness, Jon Kabat Zinn details how returning attention to the senses can immediately shift your experience. By smelling a scent, touching an object, or experiencing a bodily sensation, you remind yourself of the moment you are in versus an imaginary moment from the past. Shifting your experience to the present moment through the use of your senses can build your emotional awareness.
Learn to relax. Of course, remembering to make this shift in attention is the challenge, particularly right in the middle of feeling heavy emotions. One way to do this is to take a break from technology. Distancing yourself from the television, computer, phone, and Ipad can help you stay in touch with your present experience. It can also help with connecting with your senses and your inner experience. The stimulation of technology can prevent from feeling your emotions. Another way to do this is to create a relaxing environment when you’re feeling stressed. You can do this by listening to relaxing music or focusing on your breathing at least one per day.
It’s true that you won’t remember to utilize your emotional intelligence every time you feel emotionally overwhelmed. However, the more you practice, the more you’ll find yourself becoming aware of your feelings and responding to them rather than running. More importantly, you will be able to use your ability to stay present to manage your emotions versus letting them drive you to drugs, drinking, or making unhealthy decisions.
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