Trying to navigate all your emotions in early sobriety is hard. Some days it feels damn near impossible. I don’t just mean the difficult ones like anger, shame, or loneliness. Even managing extreme joy can be tough without booze.
I remember this commercial that aired in the States several years back about quitting smoking. The video showed several people struggling with the most basic tasks – buttoning a shirt, ironing, driving a car.
The message was something to the effect that learning to live life without cigarettes is hard and can feel like you’re completely starting over. You have to relearn how to exist as a person without a cigarette, and the people in the video seemed comically inept.
At the time the ad aired (I can’t seem to find a copy of it anywhere online), I was still a smoker and would give a knowing sigh whenever it came on because I completely understood. The same is also true of drinking.
Learning How To Be A Person Who Doesn’t Drink
Every time I tried quitting smoking in the past, I felt like I’d just woken up from a coma ten years into the future. How do people drive their car for longer than twenty minutes without smoking? How do people have an argument without smoking? How do people walk outside for longer than five minutes without smoking?
Functioning without cigarettes felt impossible, foreign. I couldn’t understand how anyone ever did it, even as I increasingly became the only smoker in many circles. I couldn’t fathom it.
Then there was the alcohol. How do you go to a party and not drink? How do you celebrate a holiday and not drink? Or get together with friends and not drink? What about stress? How does a person come home from a horrible job every day and not immediately drink?
Surely you don’t suggest I just handle my emotions without anything to help me? Raw emotions? Me?
I felt like an emotional toddler (and maybe I was). Without my crutches, I didn’t understand how to react to ANYTHING in a healthy manner and in a lot of ways, the things I was feeling felt completely NEW. What is this emotion welling up in my throat right now? Why do I want to cry all of a sudden?
It’s enough to drive a person insane, or relapse. I’ve done a bit of both on my journey.
Handling Your Emotions Without Alcohol
A term you may have heard bandied about in recovery circles and literature is “emotional sobriety.” According to Scientific American, emotional sobriety is defined as “(t)he idea…that alcoholics and other addicts hoping to stay sober over the long haul must learn to regulate the negative feelings that can lead to discomfort, craving and—ultimately—relapse.”
People who use alcohol to self-medicate do not intuitively know how to regulate their emotions in healthy ways. If we did, we wouldn’t have wound up here.
So what to do?
There’s a bit of debate in the recovery world over the best way to handle emotions in early sobriety in particular. Alcoholics Anonymous says “first things first” which means no matter what, don’t drink. This strategy tells people not to spend mental energy trying to analyze how you got addicted, the mess you’ve made, or trying to understand the emotion. Just don’t drink. Make that your sole focus and push aside the rest for now.
Another saying is “Don’t think. Don’t drink.” In early sobriety, high-intensity emotions can easily derail your sobriety. Don’t let them.
Teach yourself not to engage with these feelings and instead, DISTRACT with whatever tool you use to get through the tough days. These tools could be exercise, prayer, meditation, or AA meetings.
If you allow yourself to fall down emotional rabbit holes early in sobriety, you increase your chances of relapse. Take the shame, regret, embarrassment, anger, and remorse and put them aside for now. Just focus on not drinking today, or this hour, or this minute.
Emotional Sobriety and The Reappraisal Strategy
Because you can’t use distraction forever, there will come a time when you do have to confront your emotions and learn how to handle them in a healthy way.
In the same article from Scientific American, the author discusses how people with healthy emotional coping mechanisms use a combination of distraction (mentioned above) and something called reappraisal, which involves thinking carefully about emotions in order to reevaluate them.
Distraction is often utilized for intense, negative emotions, whereas reappraisal is utilized as a method for dealing with milder, negative emotions. I won’t go into detail here, but there is a fascinating study that explains these findings in the article that I recommend reading.
What is reappraisal exactly?
It’s a strategy often used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Instead of ignoring the emotion or allowing your brain and body to assign meaning to whatever emotion is taking hold, reappraisal involves accepting your emotions and then reinterpreting them in order to understand them better.
If you’re reading this and thinking, “Wait, what?” don’t worry. I got you.
How Reappraisal Works
Let’s say you are confronted with a mildly negative emotion like getting cut off in traffic after a long day at work.
Perhaps a typical reaction to this incident would be to become flushed and overcome with adrenaline from the combination of being taken off guard and instantly angered. You may hit the break, angrily smack your steering wheel, and curse the driver who did it.
Now you’re pissed. Now your emotions are elevated. You’re this guy:
Instead of flipping out and allowing anger to run amuck inside your body, reappraisal requires you to slow it down and actively choose to interpret the emotion differently.
So the moron in the Pathfinder has cut you off, and you’ve instinctively gasped and hit your brakes. You’re okay. Nobody got hurt.
Reappraisal means before you let the emotion just run its natural course (which isn’t going to be a healthy one), you stop and reevaluate it. Say out loud:
“Okay, I’m safe. That guy is an asshole. But I’m okay. It just scared me. My heart is racing a little bit, but I’m going to take a couple deep breaths and just keep driving until I’m home safe.”
And then you take those breaths, you mindfully examine what’s happening in your body as you do it, and you ward off allowing yourself go crazy over the incident. Instead of letting anger simmer, you’re redefining it as FEAR from getting cut off and thinking you could’ve gotten hurt.
If you’d like to read more about reappraisal, here’s a good article to explain it further.
Should You Use Reappraisal Or Distraction?
If you’re reading about reappraisal and thinking, “uhhhhh I’m barely getting through the day as it is. That sounds like too much,” don’t worry. There is a reason that distraction tends to be the go-to strategy in early sobriety.
It’s very common when you first stop drinking to feel overwhelmed by intense emotions. Now that you aren’t drowning your sorrows in alcohol, you’re feeling things that you normally don’t allow yourself to feel. Shame. Regret. Remorse.
Sometimes these feelings pop up out of nowhere. You could be shopping for groceries, perfectly content to plan the side dishes for dinner, and then BAM! Your brain interrupts with a memory of something particularly awful you said to your mom when you got trashed at Christmas last year.
Now you’re wracked with guilt, feeling like the worst human being in the world. This is exactly the kind of emotion that makes you want to drink.
Don’t. Just don’t drink. That’s the only thing you have to do. You don’t have fix anything with your mom right now. You just have to not drink.
Distract. Shake off the memory and continue your shopping. Read the labels on the fancy cheese if it helps take your mind off things. Go home and do some push-ups. Write in your journal. Attend a meeting. But don’t let yourself get swept up in a memory of something you can never change or take back. Now is not the time.
The Importance Of Therapy
I’ve mentioned the importance of therapy in sobriety before, but I want to talk about it again. There are going to be days when those memories and emotions seem to creep up on you every other minute and it can feel like too much.
Seeing a therapist or counselor regularly can help you confront these emotions in a healthy way when you’re ready to do so. Obviously, you cannot recreate scenes from Flashdance in your living room to distract yourself from emotions forever.
Distraction is what you do to get through that day or minute without drinking. It is NOT a longterm coping strategy.
Practice your reappraisal strategies with incidents that don’t have too much power over you, like coping with a rude lady behind you in line at the pharmacy. But get thee to a counselor so that you have a safe space with a trained professional who can help you manage your “stuff.”
You abused alcohol. You don’t know how to handle your emotions in a healthy way. You’re an emotional newbie now. There’s nothing wrong with that, but don’t try to kid yourself by thinking you can white knuckle your feelings until they suddenly “get better.” They’re not going to.
My friend, you’ve got some work to do.
Beware The Pink Cloud
The “pink cloud” of sobriety is a devilish thing. If you’re not familiar with the term, “pink cloud” refers to the euphoric feeling some people get in early sobriety. It’s that exciting, overly positive, “I can do anything!” vibe that has you walking with an extra pep in your step.
Sobriety? This is easy! I’ve got this! I just had an amazing green smoothie and did five yoga classes last week.
You may be reading this and thinking, “Okay, this is a bad thing?”
Well, yeah. Kinda.
Maybe a better way to put it is that it is false. A lie.
Have you ever met someone and there’s an instant attraction? The two of you are in total mind melt and it’s like you’ve known them forever. You literally feel high. Obviously, this is your “person.”
Then a few weeks go by, reality sets in, and you realize that you don’t actually know this person very well at all. They’re not the perfect “instant-partner” you envisioned that first meeting. In fact, he or she doesn’t even text you back anymore. Now you’re devastated and doing some really unhealthy social media stalking.
The pink cloud can be like that.
People who are riding high on the recovery wave in the early weeks often make the grave mistake of thinking they don’t need to attend their meetings or see their counselor anymore. They’re “fixed.” Life is great. They’ve got it all figured out.
Those people tend to relapse fairly quickly.
The reality is those people are living in a fantasy world. How many of us who’ve tried to quit in the past, got back into drinking because we felt a little TOO good and thought, “Hey, I can have one glass of wine now. It’s fine. I’m fine.”?
If you’re on the pink cloud right now, enjoy the good vibes, but don’t trust them too much. You aren’t fixed and chances are if you go back and have a drink, it will lead you down a path you don’t want to be on.
If you’re having a hard time right, please know that it DOES get better. There are going to be highs and lows on this journey. You could be feeling completely stable for days or weeks and then get hit with an emotional tsunami that threatens to throw you completely off your game.
It’s normal. There’s nothing wrong or broken about you. We all go through it.
Make sure you have your support systems in place. See a therapist regularly, even if you feel fine, and continue going to meetings or whatever program you’ve chosen to follow.
The key to longterm success is consistency and humility.
Journal Activity For Today
It’s important to take time to check in yourself and how you’re feeling early on. Here are some prompts you can use to synthesize today’s information.
- How have you been feeling? List out the emotions you’ve been experiencing since you started this journey.
- Do you think you’re on the “pink cloud” or are you struggling with more intense emotions? Write about that
- Have your emotions been consistent or up and down? What has that been like?
- Which emotions have been the hardest for you to manage? How are you handling them?
- What support systems are you using to manage emotions right now? Friends? AA (or a similar program)? Counseling?
- How have you or will you use “distraction” to manage intense emotions?
- How have you or will use “reappraisal” to start reshaping milder negative emotions?
- How have you used alcohol in the past to manage your emotions?
Here’s a fabulous talk about addiction, recovery, and managing emotions that I hope you’ll enjoy.