By Haley Kennedy, Recovery Coach – 1.15.2021 —
Reality is people use substances because they provide a desired effect. Maybe a cigarette helps you calm down when taking a break, or a drink helps relieve feelings of anxiety and tension at the end of a long day. But the problem is that the effect of substances is inherently short term. Once the effect subsides, you may feel that underlying uncomfortability return and crave the effects again.
Which creates a cycle that is hard to break. For example, if having a couple drinks is the way you relax then you might feel tense and irritable without them. Or if a substance is what you use for comfort in social situations, when you don’t use, you might avoid socializing and then find yourself feeling lonely and isolated. You could also feel that you have lost all skill (or maybe never developed) at managing your feelings without substances because you have been using them for such a long period of time.
When you decide to reduce or stop using substances you must learn a different way to deal with your feelings. Keep in mind that managing feelings is a learned skill that is shaped by experience. Although you’ve been using substances for a long time to alter the way you feel, the root of the problem (inability to manage feelings) may go back farther than that. It could be that you were not taught to manage them because you grew up in an environment where feelings weren’t addressed or at times actively avoided. If this is the case, have some compassion for yourself as you start down the path of learning how to deal with your feelings without the use of drugs or alcohol.
You might be asking, “Why on earth would I want to let myself feel bad?!” Contrary to how bad they feel at times, feelings are not the enemy. They are simply data telling you something about your environment or experience. In fact, being aware of your feelings can help you make better decisions in your life. For instance, anger, a feeling a lot of people try to avoid (by having a few drinks or getting high), is a natural response to certain situations. It is typically a sign that something in your environment is distressing or dangerous and needs to change. If you block that awareness you put yourself at risk. For example, if you deny that you are angry about the way someone treats you, you could end up staying in a relationship with a person who repeatedly makes you feel bad, or even hurts you emotionally or physically.
The first step to changing your relationship with substances is to build a healthier relationship with your feelings! If you find yourself craving your substance, despite knowing your goal, it helps to step back and acknowledge your feelings, whatever they may be:
· What am I feeling?
· What is happening, what is provoking it?
· I feel like I just want to use, but what is it that I really want (e.g., to decompress after a stressful day, to feel less depressed)?
Many people are surprised by the intensity of their feelings once they cut down or stop using a substance. Here are some helpful steps if you find yourself overwhelmed with your feelings or struggling to cope with them (getting more angry, having panic attacks, feeling very depressed):
· Talking to someone you trust about how you are feeling. Sometimes just getting the feeling off your chest can reduce its intensity and make it more bearable.
· Remember that feelings, like substances, are short lived. It may be that you don’t need to “do anything” in response, other than just notice that you are feeling it. Activities like meditation and yoga can help you develop the skill of observing and sitting with a feeling.
· Speak to a therapist trained in treating substance use. There are a variety of skills you can learn in treatment that will help you learn to manage your feelings in a way that supports your health and your goals.
· Find a support group. Lots of people have successfully changed their relationship to substances and they can help you find your way in the early stages. They can be the inspiration you need when you are doubting whether making a change is worth the discomfort you are feeling.
· If you find the feelings are unbearable and don’t actually pass, you may want to consider speaking with a psychiatrist. A medication consult may help you understand all of your options and whether your brain chemistry is playing a role in your struggle.
As you go through the process, remember that continuing to avoid substance use will help you get a handle on your feelings, a better understanding of yourself, and the life you want to live. If you keep returning to a substance in response to a feeling, you are likely delaying the learning process. Get the support you need and trust that you can learn to cope with your feelings in healthy sustainable ways. And what you learn from your feelings might surprise you and help you make better choices in your life. And you might be surprised that your feelings will help you with much more than just making better choices in your life.