One of the most challenging and unattractive parts of recovery to many people is feelings. Feeling feelings is difficult for the first time when drugs and alcohol aren’t present. Some feelings are associated with traumas and stories of a painful past which hasn’t been reckoned with. Learning to manage negative emotions is a necessary survival skill for lifelong sobriety. Here are two methods which are proven on a neurological scale to help.
We hear a lot about gratitude in early recovery. As if it is the new drug du jour, people are always talking about gratitude lists, gratitude journals, and being grateful all the time. It is the “attitude of gratitude” as it is commonly said, which keeps people sober. In terms of recovery and the spiritual solution provided by the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, this makes sense. Resentments, as highlighted in the fourth step inventory, are, as The Big Book authors and AA founders put it “fatal” to the alcoholic. Essentially, it is impossible to be in a resentment and be in gratitude at the same time.
According to neuroscientific research, gratitude increases levels of dopamine production as well as activates dopamine circuits involved with social activity. So not only does dopamine makes us feel better in general, but practicing gratitude toward others increases our happiness toward others.
Most people who have been to treatment for recovery from drug and alcohol addiction are familiar with a famous chart. This chart has rows upon rows of “emoji” faces expressing different emotions. Under each emotion is the label for what that feeling is. Drug and alcohol addiction stunt developmental growth, especially in emotional maturation. Not only do emotions not mature, the literacy required for adequately articulating those emotions also gets stunted. What “feels bad” to someone could really mean a range of feelings from sad to angry to hurt. Without knowledge of these labels, it is hard to identify them; without identifying them, it is hard to work through them and let them go.
Emotional literacy and being able to label feelings actually reduces the chaos and discomfort many recovering addicts and alcoholics experience when dealing with emotions for the first time. With just one or two words to associate with an emotional experience, the prefrontal cortex gets activated, thereby reducing activity in the limbic system which results in that discomfort.