Emotions and Addiction Recovery – Anger

What is the role of anger in the recovery process?

Beyond the emotionally tumultuous days of the first few weeks of sobriety, people in addiction recovery then move into a second phase of early recovery.   As their mind and body begin to function on a more normal basis, a new crop of emotions begin to surface.   Once of the first, and most important of these is anger.

A. Emotions are not moral – It is a mistake to classify some feeling as “good” and others as “bad”.   There is nothing moral about them.   Emotions are God-given; the Bible even says that He has them – including anger.     There is a moral dynamic with emotions. It is in how we express them – how we act upon them – than whether we have them or not.   James says, “Be angry but do not sin.” (James 1:19-20)     Feelings are simply signals, usually with a physiological response, that can actually tell us more about how we perceive a given situation than pure unassisted logic.For people in recovery from an addiction, emotional understanding and freedom is essential if they are to grow, to feel good about their lives, and to really experience happiness.   If I don’t fully understand the emotional signals I am experiencing in my life, I’ll never truly know what’s inside of me and what makes me “tick.” Conversely, the inability to manage feelings in a healthy manner is a major reason that many fall back into using alcohol and drugs.   When sobriety becomes too painful and confusing, using mind-altering substances can seem like the only option.

B. The formation of emotional responses – Although our emotions are important indicators of how an individual actually perceives a given situation, they are often coming from an incorrect perception. One of the objectives of spiritual and emotional growth is getting one’s feelings get more in line with reality.     When you get right down to it, all of our feelings have evolved from many past experiences, usually in our childhood.   This is especially applicable to anger.     In most dysfunctional families, children are told that heavy emotions, like anger, are “bad” and they learn to feel ashamed about their anger.   In homes that are filled with rage and violence, they learn to fear anger, which to them always seems destructive.   Some learn to use anger and threats of violence to control others.     To complicate things further, to survive on the streets homeless addict cannot entrust their true selves to others, so they have a must harder time trusting, which they must have in order to attain emotional recovery.

C. The purpose of anger – If the emotion of anger is from God, then there must be a divine purpose for it.   I believe there are three.   The first is that anger reactions are basically a kind of emotional trip-wire, a survival mechanism that is God-given.   We react in anger to perceived threats, real or imagined.   Anger protects us from harm and loss.   Secondly, anger is designed to help us maintain healthy boundaries. Anger alerts us to threats to privacy needs, physical space needs, protection needs, and comfort needs.     And finally, anger is given by God to spur us on to action.   The physiological responses that accompany anger include increased blood pressure, muscle clenching, and a flood of adrenaline, positioning our bodies in an “attack mode.”

D. Healthy boundaries: the key to understanding anger – You have often said that the mission residential recovery program’s first goal is to create hope in our clients.   What are some ways we can accomplish this?

Before people can begin the process of change they must fully understand two basic truths; 1) that change is needed in a certain area of their lives and 2) that change is possible.     In previous installments, we have discussed strategies of breaking through the addict’s denial system, which is the starting point for his or her accepting the need for change.   But if we only convince people that their lives are a mess we may leave them in a place of despair.   We must create an environment full of hope where they can catch a vision for how their lives could be in Christ, along with giving the tools to build a life of faith and recovery.

E. Different expressions of anger –   When it comes to anger, there are basically two types of people:   “stuffers” and “blowers.”     In most cases, neither of these anger management styles is better then others.   But the extremes we see among homeless addicts is destructive. The “stuffers” have learned to handle their feelings, especially the difficult (or heavy) ones like anger, by pushing them deep inside and forgetting about them — denying them completely.   One the other hand, the extreme “blowers” have unusually strong anger reactions – everyone knows that they are mad.   They may even assault others, either verbally or physically.

For both types of people, healthy anger management comes down to understanding, developing and maintaining healthy boundaries.In dysfunctional family systems, the personal borders between the various members are blurred.   People cannot sort out “whose stuff is whose.”   This condition is at the very heart of the disorder we call “codependency.”   Instead of “Dad drinks because he is an alcoholic”, he drinks because mom does not keep the house clean or because the kids are not well behaved. Abused children, whose boundary have been violated violently then to live with messages like, “I’m not allowed to tell you to get out of my stuff.” “I don’t have a right to be angry when you hurt me.”     They become extreme “stuffers” whose biggest need is to understand that anger is OK.   They need to come to believe that personal boundaries are not only all right; there are essential. In other words, they need to adjust their boundaries outward.     Extreme “blowers” with destructive anger must learn to adjust their boundaries inward.   They become less hostile and defensive as they understand the deep-seated fears and attitudes that are at the root of their rage.   Often, some instruction in anger/stress management techniques is helpful.

A very helpful book on this topic are   Boundaries by Henry Cloud & John Townsend (Zondervan 1992)

F.        How staff members can help residents understand and manage anger – Self-revelation is probably the essential tool in the addict’s efforts toward emotional health.   All residents in recovery programs, whether they say it or not, are hoping that somehow they will be loved and that someone will truly care about them.   No matter how weird and crazy they behave, most could actually wear a button that says, and “I need to know that you love me. Am I OK?”   Most have their entire lives with the internal message that say that they’re not OK.     Few of us know what it’s like to walk around with years of accumulated toxic emotional junk inside.   Addicts live their lives with a suppressed accumulation of regret, remorse, anger, pain and guilt deep inside.Staff members need to help residents gain a sense that that it is all right to reveal what is within them, no matter how ugly.   Within groups settings and in one-on-one counseling sessions, there must be a consistent message that saying “No feeling is rejected in this place.”   We will deal with them, confront you on your incorrect perceptions, teach new ways to deal with anger – but we will never reject you for being real, honest, and vulnerable.

G. Scriptures Related to Anger and Resentment

James 1:19-20                                                                       Proverbs 19:11

Proverbs 20:22                                                                    Leviticus 19:18

Psalm 37:8-11                                                                         Proverbs 15:1

Matthew 5:21-26                                                              1 Peter 3:8-18

Proverbs 22:24

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.