Emotional heath is an important part of the recovery process. When we were in active addiction, we may have used substances to mask difficult emotions. In recovery we must face those emotions. An essential part of that process is being able to identify those feelings in the first place. If we have been covering over emotions with substances, or replacing difficult emotions like sadness or fear with emotions like anger, it can be hard at first to identity what we are feeling. The good news is once we begin to identify our feelings, we can learn to respond to them appropriately.
Recovery is About Being Intentional in what we do, Think, and Feel.
If we do not know what we want or how we are feeling, we can’t live intentionally which can make the recovery process more challenging. According to marriage and family therapist Jake Wiskerchen who is featured in our podcast series on emotional health, if we are emotionally well, we will understand what we are feeling and why we are feeling it so we can respond cognitively. He says we can’t process or respond to difficult emotions until we can correctly identify them. There are 10 core emotions and according to Jake “accurately labeling those emotions is important so we can respond appropriately to the environment as opposed to how someone else thinks we should, or in ways that are maladaptive. 3 to 9 seconds is all that an emotion will stay in our brain. If an emotional stimulus hits, we decide how long (through our thoughts) we stay in that emotional state.”
If we grew up around chaos or experienced trauma, there may be underlying depression or anxiety. However, we may have learned to respond to the accompanying sadness or fear with anger or by stuffing those emotions altogether which causes incongruency. In psychology, congruency means we act in accordance to our true feelings, and in turn we become our true self rather than an ideal we or someone else created. When our internal self is incongruent with our external self it can inhibit our recovery because we are not recognizing or processing our true emotions. This can cause anger and resentment to build up inside us, which is one of the reasons we can carry around pain and trauma for years. While certain emotions can feel positive or negative, according to Jake they are not necessarily good or bad but they serve as messengers. Once we understand what our emotions are trying to tell us, we can learn to respond in healthy and appropriate ways. When we react incongruently, we experience inner turmoil which can be very distressing and inhibit recovery.
How do we Begin to Recognize our Feelings and Respond Accordingly?
While there are many techniques, simply being aware and practicing mindfulness is a good starting point. In other words, we slow down when we have an emotion and work on determining what we are feeling at the time. The goal is to not only identify the emotion, but push through the wave of the emotion to the other side rather than bailing out of the feeling, replacing it with another emotion, or turning to drugs or alcohol. If we can correctly identify the emotion and push through to the other side, we can then respond correctly after we recognize what we felt. According to Jake, the problem is that often times we ‘jump ship’ because it is easier:
“Some people who are not good at tolerating their emotions like let’s say fear, they will bail out of that experience and not feel it fully and they will reach for something like anger or contempt, so we cover over emotions. If we are living in that emotion, we probably did not come out of the womb that way, we practiced it for a long time and what is beneath that is probably something we are not attending to.”
He says if we are not good at dealing with the more vulnerable emotions that expose us to risk, pain, or vulnerability, it is easier to just shut down and grab something like anger or contempt. These emotions give us a sense of being in control and then we don’t have to acknowledge the more sensitive emotion that we are scared: “when we bottle this stuff up, eventually the frontal lobe runs out of power and we have to go to something else to suppress those emotions even further. We have to go to something like drugs or alcohol. It is an avoidance of reality. We are not attending to reality on life’s terms and we are trying to conceal things.
When we Deal with it, we don’t Carry it with us.
During our discussion on the Recovery and Company Podcast, we used the example of road rage. When we experience road rage our initial emotion is usually fear but rather than feel that fear we cover it up with anger. For years I struggled with anger that would sometimes manifest in road rage incidents. What I eventually learned is that I lacked boundaries in my personal life and had trouble standing up for myself. Sometimes I would take out those frustrations on the freeway. I also learned my initial response to the boundary violation in traffic was fear. Once I attended to the lack of boundaries and processed the actual emotion of fear, I was able to gain control over my anger.
Jake says when we use a substitute emotion it makes our brain think we have done something but we really did not complete the task. The reason we can carry anger, resentments, and unhealthy levels of recovery inhibiting emotions for years is because we never properly attended to them. In other words, when you deal with it, you don’t carry it with you.
If you want to learn more about emotions and mental health check out the Recovery and Company Podcast series with Jake Wiskerchen.