Emotions and Addiction Recovery – Early Recovery

How do feelings affect the addict in the early stages of recovery?

This second installment on the role of emotions in the recovery process will focus on the first 30-90 days of sobriety.   The truth is, most addicts return to drugs and drinking when sobriety becomes too stressful for them.   Therefore, teach them to deal with their feelings in a healthy manner greatly improves their chances of achieving long-term sobriety.

A.   The physiological impact on emotions.

The first few days without drugs and alcohol are characterized by disjointed thinking and emotional upheaval.   Newly sober people tend to be very anxious and uptight.   This is due, in a large part , to the fact that alcohol and drug use have caused their bodies to be depleted of many important neurochemicals, like endorphines, that contribute to a normal state of well-being.   Crack and cocaine users especially, experience anxiety, abnormal fears and difficulty sleeping.   They can be short tempered and they have short attention spans.

It is helpful for new residential program residents to know that these are mostly physical symptoms. They need to know that, as they remain drug-free, their bodies will get back into balance and their emotional states will surely improve.   Physical exercise, good diet, and participation in support groups are all important aspects of this process.

A word of caution: Be careful not to pile too much work and responsibility on newly recovering addicts during this time of physical and emotional readjustment.   While the actual mind-altering substances are discharged from the body in 72 hours, it takes the brain at least 30 days to begin to function in a relatively normal fashion.   Besides the emotional struggles during this time, addicts also experience fatigue and loss of coordination.   Too much, too fast, can be discouraging and even place them in physical danger.

B.   Returning emotions – a sure sign of progress!

As addicts remain free of mind-altering chemicals for a longer period of time, they begin to feel feelings again.   This is an important sign of progress.   It is also the signal that they are moving into a dangerous time, since many of these new feelings are not pleasant ones.   Pain and anger that has been pushed down for years may rise to the surface.   As their minds clear, newly sober people often experience real grief as they begin to connect with the losses of their lives – especially the relationships that have been damaged because of their addiction.       Many feel extremely depressed, lonely, and afraid.     As a result, they are greatly tempted to use in drugs or alcohol to drown out their emotions.

C.   Having an environment where emotions are OK

Recovery program staff members need to work hard to maintain an environment where people can begin experiencing feelings and where they can express them freely.   In these early days of sobriety, it is absolutely essential for addicts to surround themselves with supportive people.   They need people who are non-judgmental listeners.   They need to be reassured by learning that the eruption of emotions described above is a normal part of the process of recovery.

There is genuine therapeutic value in the free, verbal expression of feelings.   Yet, for people who have lived on the streets, this is no simple task.   When you are homeless, you cannot afford to appear vulnerable.   Rescue mission staff members who have learned the art of real listening assist newly sober addicts to share what is going inside of themselves It is one of the greatest gifts that they can give to program participants.   But, this will not happen by accident.   Such experiences must be a planned aspect of a recovery program.

D. Learning emotional self-care

Living life “from the neck up” is a very sad survival-oriented way of life.   In a very real way, to be emotionally disconnected is to be disconnected from ones own self.   Emotional freedom is essential for developing meaningful relationships with others.   Learning emotional self care is necessary for long-term sobriety.   Fortunately, there are some counseling strategies that can be used to teach this skill to recovering addicts We will deal with this topic in our next installment in this series.


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