When you think about it, our emotions literally rule our lives. When we encounter a situation that evokes an emotional response, we have a reaction. That reaction can be healthy or disordered.
With regard to substance use, emotions can lead to drug and alcohol use as a maladaptive coping mechanism. This can occur when an emotional trigger causes us such distress that there is a desire to numb those emotions or deny their power by using a substance. Over time, substance use as a means of self-medicating our emotions can lead to a substance use disorder, dependency or addiction.
When we have a better understanding of our emotions and how we react to stimuli, we can manage them more effectively without the need for a substance. Learning how to regulate negative emotions is an essential coping skill for long-term sobriety.
What are emotions?
Humans, and even other primates, are hard-wired with a series of basic universal emotions. These are reflexive or visceral responses that emerge when we are in a situation that affects us in a positive or negative way. We evaluate the situation at hand and then respond to it. Our emotions reveal our needs, likes, dislikes, and perceptions as we go through life.
According to evolutionary theory, certain emotions have enabled us to survive and reproduce. For example, since the dawn of time, when we encounter a dangerous or fear-inducing situation we experience the fight or flight response. This is an innate emotional trigger that instructs us to assess a given situation and then either run away to escape the threat or stay and fight.
In the seventies, Psychologist Paul Ekman Ph.D., identified six basic emotions in humans that appear in all cultures, regardless of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class or gender. These include:
Later, Dr. Ekman added shame, embarrassment, pride and excitement to the list of basic universal emotions.
How to identify emotions
While we may be quite aware that we are experiencing an emotional response to something, it isn’t always easy to identify the actual emotion or what exactly we’re reacting to. Are we feeling angry about something that is occurring in our present moment, or is the emotion a result of encountering a trigger that reminded us of some negative experience from the past?
In recovery, it’s common to struggle with emerging emotions after numbing them for so long. This is why ongoing outpatient therapy, using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is so essential to a successful recovery. DBT can be very helpful in teaching emotion regulation techniques, and CBT helps you to reframe negative self-talk that otherwise fuels negative emotions.
In early recovery, you may need to work on gaining emotional literacy, or learning how to accurately identify your emotions. These techniques can help you achieve that:
- Practice Mindfulness: Increased awareness of the present moment can help you identify and deal with your emotions.
- Acknowledge the Emotion: An emotion is neither good nor bad — avoid judging the emotion, but rather accept it.
- Consider the Source: When you acknowledge the emotion, try to find the connection to a trigger or memory to gain a better understanding of why you’re feeling the way that you are.
- Practice Self-Soothing: Engage in some type of relaxation technique to help reduce the anxiety and stress associated with negative emotions.
- Keep a Journal: Writing down your experiences in a journal can help you identify the source or cause of the emotional responses you’ve experienced.
Of course, acknowledging an emotion is a far cry from learning how to then manage the emotion — managing or regulating emotions takes practice. Self-care practices that are helpful in reducing stress can be integrated into daily life when negative emotions arise. These can include deep breathing techniques, meditation, or yoga, which are all easily accessible as needed.
Ashley Addiction Treatment, formerly Father Martin’s Ashley, is a nationally recognized nonprofit leader in integrated, evidence-based treatment for substance use disorders. Our programs are accredited by The Joint Commission, and result in frequent publications of ongoing research into effective treatment methodologies. We offer holistic care that encompasses the mind, body and spirit through inpatient and outpatient treatment, provide drug detox, relapse prevention plans, family wellness programs and a variety of other services tailored to each patient’s unique needs. Our driving principle — “everything for recovery” — reinforces our mission to transform and save lives through the science of medicine, the art of therapy and the compassion of spirituality, and is complemented by our philosophy of healing with respect and dignity. For information about our comprehensive programs, please call (866) 313-6307.