Emotions and Addiction Recovery – Self Awareness

A.          The importance of emotional self-awareness.   In a 1992 SRI Gallup study, commissioned by the Knox Area Rescue Ministry, six critical “life themes” were identified in the lives of people who recovered from homelessness. Among the most important was the “Self-Awareness “ theme, which they described in this manner:

  Persons who are high on the Self-Awareness theme are in touch with their own emotions. They can name the feelings that are surging through themselves… As they grow, they can discuss their emotions with other people and they will tend to express them to other people rather than keep them inside. Then, they can talk about how they feel about their own life and its hurts; they can say that and then ask for help in making the corrections. They can own the bad things that have happened to them in their life, and they can know the good feelings that they want to achieve.

Those lacking emotional self-awareness tended to be patently unmotivated. They have little that excites them either positively or negatively. If they have feelings, they are confusing rather than something that drive them to action.” (1)

B.        The affect of troubled families on emotional health A large percentage of homeless addicts grew up with an addicted or dysfunctional parent. As children they experienced inconsistency, chaos, fear, abandonment, denial, and real or potential violence. In this environment they learned to survive by suppressing their emotions. They were told that their perceptions were wrong and that their feelings are not acceptable. The rules of troubled families, according to Claudia Black in her book,   It Will Never Happen to Me, are “don’t trust, don’t feel, don’t talk.” The result is constricted emotions, especially in the areas of intimacy, tenderness, and sexuality. It is no surprise that these children are eight times more likely become addicts themselves.

C.        The impact of addiction on emotional health   The first step down the road to addiction is the use of mood-altering chemicals to manage one’s emotions — especially the heavy ones like self-doubt, anger guilt, fear, and grief. Emotions cannot be “compartmentalized.” If undesirable feelings are suppressed by drinking or drugging, addicts also lose touch with the desirable ones as. This condition has sometimes been called“ “living life from the neck up.” When an individual has lost touch with his or her emotional life, all of life becomes a frustrating endeavor to figure things out without the vital signals that come from our feelings.

D.        Emotional dysfunction and the development of denial.   The abuse of alcohol or drugs always leads to painful consequences like being fired from a job because of failure to show up after drinking binges. Marriages break up and relationships with other loved ones are destroyed. They experience car wrecks and health problems. Such consequences normally cause people with healthy emotions to take stock of their lives –and to make changes in their behavior to avoid experiencing them in the future. But, for addicts, instead of changing their behavior, they use drugs and alcohol even more to dull the uncomfortable feelings they produce! They intellectualize and rationalize their behavior and shift the blame off themselves and on to other people.

When God created man in His own image, He created us with intellectual capacity, a free will, and emotions. These three, together, constitute what the Bible calls “the soul.” As we exercise our free will in day to day decisions, what we end up doing is usually based more upon our emotional perceptions than upon our intellect. Even the less desirable feelings, like anger, fear, and guilt are necessary for an accurate view of reality – and are intended by God to spur us to action. Suppressing them with alcohol and drugs is a big part of the addict’s distorted perception of reality we call “denial.”

E.        The journey toward emotional well being.   For addicts, discontinuing the use of alcohol and/or drugs to manage their emotions is the first step. They need to start feeling the feelings. This can be an extremely painful experience for people who have been working overtime to avoid them. Still this is no guarantee that they will recover emotionally. Too often, addicts compulsively engage in other activities, like work, to continue avoiding and managing their feelings.

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.


Emotions and Addiction Recovery – Grief

A.        Addicts are both victims and victimizers. Anyone who is addicted to drugs and alcohol leaves behind them a trail of destruction. This could include everything from harm done to loved ones – both physically and emotionally – as well as violence and criminal activity of all sorts in which many become involved. On the other hand, we need to recognize that the majority of addicts have, themselves, grown up in painful, dysfunctional families. In homes where one or both of the adults are out of control because of addiction or other life-consuming problem, they were subjected to a daily diet of physical and emotional trauma.

Effective rescue mission recovery programs recognize the importance of helping addicts to repent of their sin and become responsible the wrong they have done. Steps 4 & 5 used with Steps 8 & 9 are practical guides for helping recovery addicts to gain a clear conscience and to take the extra step of restoring broken relationships and acknowledging to other the hurt they have caused them. This is dealing with the “victimizer.”

We must also be careful to also deal with the “victim.” Some Christian workers have tended to shy away from this, though, for fear of sending the message that we are excusing the destructive behavior of the addict. But, if we do not deal with this aspect of recovery, our program participants will have great difficulties in coming into genuine emotional freedom.

B.        The Impact of Childhood Messages.   The single most common message experienced in dysfunctional families is, “you’re not allowed to feel.” When someone is told that their feelings are no good, they hear, “I’m no good.” As we’ve mentioned in earlier installments of this series, the only way to survive in such an environment survival is to “shut down” emotionally. The truth is, emotions cannot be split off in one area without affecting the total emotional life. If I make it so I am not able to experience pain; I am not going to experience joy, either. If I can’t be sad, I can’t be happy. If I am out of touch with my own feelings; I can’t ever connect with yours, either. I am living life from the neck up, you might say. Is it any wonder these people become addicted to alcohol and drugs? There is no more effective way to manage one’s emotions than mind-altering chemicals. So, whatever happened emotionally in childhood is made all the worse by pouring chemicals on top of all the shame, hurt, and resentment.

C.          Emotional Re-connection: Recovery’s Gift.   One of the greatest gifts that God gives people when they begin down the tough road of recovery is the ability, the freedom, and the permission to feel again. In recovery, we learn that everyone has emotions, that feeling are neither “good or “bad”, and that feelings are not to be feared or rejected. Instead of being disconnected from them, in recovery we learn to be aware of them, to connect with them, and to experience them. Instead of feeling numb most of the time, recovery means experiencing – both intellectually and emotionally – the joy and peace and that are an essential part of this Christian life.

D.        Grief, one of the first feelings to return to emotional health.   A sure sign that a person is beginning the process of genuine recovery is the return of the emotional life. They begin feeling again, and much of what they feel is pain and grief. With a clear mind they begin to experience reality, often for the first time in years. And, the reality they find themselves in is usually terrible. By the time they reach out for help, most addicts have lost all that is dear to them – family, career, and self-respect. After drowning their feelings with drugs and/or alcohol for so long, they can experience feelings very intensely. The feelings of grief and loss can be profound. They may find themselves grieving the death of a loved one or some other loss that occurred years ago. In these cases, their grieving process has been cut short through use of mood altering chemical (which includes alcohol).Adult children of alcoholics and others who have experienced abuse in their lives usually feel totally ripped off. They may sense for the first time the deep loss of not having a family where they felt safe and loved. Many grieve a childhood where they were never able to be kids because of the adult responsibilities that were trust upon them by parents who were out of control.

The key to working through all of this is to avoid using alcohol or drugs to turn them off their feelings again. This is a common cause of relapse for those in recovery programs. Instead, the recovering person needs to “feel the feelings” with a clear mind in order to work through them – and eventually leave them behind.

E.          Some final thoughts.   A necessary part of reconnecting with their emotional selves is to begin to grieve what they’ve made of their lives, how they’ve destroyed the relationships. And this is one of the greatest gifts that we will ever bring to our program participants, so we need — but it is not going to happen on its own. It has got to be actively programmed into our activities. And that is when they need to know we are going to be committed to them as they work through this process. Time must be set aside to give them the opportunity to talk freely about what they are experiencing. There is a tremendous therapeutic value in verbalizing feelings instead of stuffing what is going on within them.In order to keep moving forward in recovery, program participants must feel supported in the process of reconnecting with their difficult feelings, including grief. It is the responsibility of the program staff members to create an environment where participants sense that they can safely and freely express the struggles they are experiencing.