How Do Emotions Work and How Do They Affect Addiction Recovery?
Emotions, We All Have Them.
Sometimes, we need to be able to regulate these emotions better to cope with day-to-day stresses and those big moments where we just can't seem to get them under control or regulated to address addiction recovery. Let's talk about what emotions are trying to tell us and how they affect our behaviour.
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Emotions Are Speaking. How Do We Listen?
So what are emotions trying to tell us? To put it simply, they are signals within your body that tell you what's happening. When something pleasurable happens to you, you feel good; when something distressing happens, you feel bad. In many ways, it's like our body is live-tweeting updates about what you're doing and what you're experiencing.
Brains Are Hard-Wired For Survival.
Our brains have been hard-wired to survive, and emotions signal what we believe is going on around us to protect our well-being. Maybe we have been conditioned to feel certain emotions during certain activities, and our brain jumps into "Fight, Flight, or Freeze" to keep us safe from danger or harm. But emotions serve many different purposes. For example:
- Survive (fight, flight, or freeze)
- Remember people and situations (family, friends, teachers, etc.)
- Cope with situations in your daily life (driving, work, daily interactions)
- Communicate with others (how we express what our needs and boundaries are)
- Avoid pain
- Seek pleasure
Primary and Secondary Emotions
Emotions can be broken down into Primary and Secondary Emotions. Primary emotions are the ones that we react with instantly. For example, if you won the lottery, you might instantaneously feel surprised! Or when someone you love passes away, you might quickly feel sad. These primary emotions are quick knee-jerk reactions to situations but let's say, for example, someone offends you and your immediate response is anger. Later, you might start noticing feelings of guilt for yelling and getting angry with them. This would be a secondary emotion. As you can see, these emotions can get pretty complicated very quickly. A primary emotion may set off an endless chain of distressing secondary emotions that cause us more harm than the original emotion does.
Emotional regulation skills come in handy because without them, we tend to lean towards coping mechanisms that sometimes lead to addictions that don't always help us in the long run.
So, Where Do We Start With Emotional Regulation?
Emotional regulation skills will help us cope with reactions to primary and secondary emotions in new and more effective ways (let's remember we can't always control what we feel, but we can control how we react to those feelings.) This is a pretty broad topic, but we will start with some steps to help us in the long run.
- Recognizing your emotions
- Overcoming the barriers to healthy emotions
- Reducing physical vulnerability
- Reducing cognitive vulnerability
- Increasing positive emotions
- Being mindful of emotions without judgement
- Emotion exposure
- Doing the opposite of the emotional urges
Oof, right? Let's take a minute to breathe. Take a deep breath into your belly, hold it for 4 seconds, and let it out slowly. That's a pretty hefty list without getting into the details yet.
This article will just look at Recognizing Emotions & Overcoming Barriers to Healthy Emotions.
Learning how to recognize our emotions and their effect on life is the first step to controlling high-intensity emotional reactions. Unfortunately, we often spend our lives paying little attention to how we feel. As a result, many important things happen inside that we know very little about. The same is true for those of us struggling with a wave or mountain of distressing emotions that overcome us (such as sadness, anger, guilt, shame, and so on) and by the time we recognize the tidal wave, it's too late to do anything about it. We can start by creating an Emotional Record to acknowledge our emotions.
We can begin with an exercise of saying our emotions and feelings out loud. It sounds silly, but saying how you feel with your voice will highlight your emotions and help you pay close attention to what you're experiencing.
Describing these emotions aloud, especially your overwhelming emotions, can also help deflate your distressing feelings. So the more you can talk about emotion, the less urge you might have to do something about it.
You don't need to scream out to the world how you feel. Find what works for you. Maybe saying it to yourself quietly is enough or writing in a journal. This is about your comfort level as long as you're able to recognize the emotions.
Say to yourself, "right now I feel..." and remember paying attention to your good, and joyful emotions are essential too! The more you recognize them and say them out loud, the more fully you'll be able to enjoy those feelings.
A way to reinforce the experience, record your emotions in an Emotional Record.
To begin this process, you can create your worksheet in a journal or download one from the resource www.newharbinger.com/44581 to download the Emotional Record.
Over the next two weeks, we encourage you to pick a situation that happens to you each day and examine it using the worksheet. Remember, you can also practice looking at past situations to learn how to identify your emotions while they are happening.
How Do We Overcome The Barriers to Healthy Emotions?
We want to feel good. After practicing recognizing emotions more fully, you might also notice how emotions can influence your behaviours and thoughts. Take a look at this diagram:
Each one influences the other.
Let's look at this example:
Sandy lost her favourite pair of earrings (a behaviour). She felt sad (an emotion) and thought to herself, "I'm so forgetful; I'm so dumb" (a thought) But this thought just made her feel more sad and depressed (an emotion), so she went home and got drunk (a behaviour), and later felt ashamed (an emotion).
See how emotions can be both the result and the cause of thoughts and behaviours?
Thoughts and behaviours can become a vicious cycle for our emotions if we get caught in self-destructive behaviours or self-critical thinking. But we can add more fulfilling emotional experiences if we engage in healthy behaviours and self-affirming thoughts.
Back to Sandy's example:
Maybe after Sandy lost her earrings (a behaviour) and felt sad (an emotion), she could have used a coping thought like, "So what? I won't let this get to me." then, she might have been able to forgive herself for the mistake (another thought) and continue her day, feeling calm (an emotion). Or, after feeling sad about losing her earrings, maybe she could have gone for a long walk (a behaviour), which would have made her feel refreshed (an emotion).
We can use many coping thoughts and behaviours to prevent getting caught in a cycle of distressing emotions.
List of Coping Thoughts to Start Practicing
- "This situation won't last forever."
- "I've already been through many other painful experiences, and I've survived."
- "This too shall pass."
- "My feelings are like a wave that comes and goes."
- "I can be anxious and still deal with the situation."
- "I am strong enough to handle what's happening to me right now."
- "My anxiety/fear/sadness won't kill me, and it just doesn't feel good right now."
- "My thoughts don't control my life; I do."
Ready to start your journey to better mental and physical health, learn about your emotions and healthy coping thoughts to achieve your recovery goal and find your happiness?
- The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook: Practical DBT Exercises for Learning Mindfulness, Interpersonal Effectiveness, Emotion Regulation, a New Harbinger Self-Help Workbook
- Worksheets: www.newharbinger.com/44581
- The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook, 1st Edition. https://doctorlib.info/psychiatry/dialectical-behavior-therapy/7.html