Addiction is all about emotions. Feeling a bit stressed after work, a couple of glasses of wine will help you unwind. Feeling bored and lethargic? Meth will give you an boost of energy that will last for hours. Feeling a bit awkward in a social gathering and don’t know what to say? A few beers and you’ll be the life and soul of the party.
Millions of people use alcohol and drugs to change the way they feel and, in the short term, substance use can serve as an effective emotional regulation system. The problem arises when you depend completely on substances to fix the way you feel.
Because of this, when you attempt to stop addictive behaviours, you are likely to experience an onslaught of uncomfortable and sometimes excruciating emotions and feelings. Many people in early recovery describe this feeling as “jumping out of their own skin” or “being on a rollercoaster”.
One of the key skills you can learn to help you navigate the highs and lows of early recovery is to develop a higher level of emotional intelligence.
So what exactly is emotional intelligence?
Emotional intelligence has basically 5 components
The ability to identify a range of different emotions
This in itself can be challenging. Over 50 % of people with addiction are likely to have something called Alexithymia – or emotional blindness. If you have this, you will not be able to distinguish between different emotions or have the ability to put into words what you are feeling. Maybe you can identify that you feel good or strange or uncomfortable but can you distinguish anxiety from shame? Loneliness from sadness? Anger from resentment or bitterness? If you can’t, don’t worry. The majority of people who come in for addiction treatment can’t either. Learning to identify emotions is a skill that you can develop.
The ability to tolerate emotions and feelings.
Addiction is a very reactive disorder. Impatience, impulsiveness, and the inability to tolerate discomfort are all hallmarks of substance abuse. Learning to stay with uncomfortable internal states is something you need to learn in order to deal with uncomfortable emotions – including cravings- when they arise. This is probably one of the most difficult but essential parts of developing EI, as without this ability, you won’t be able to do the next three stages. It is especially difficult for substance abusers because the part of the brain responsible for over-riding intense feelings and curbing impulsiveness, has been found to be smaller and less effective in people with addiction. The good news is, there a things you can do to make this part of the brain more robust.
The ability to process the feeling
Feelings provide essential information on how to live. They signal to us when we need to take action and what we need from life. We all have emotional needs, which if not met, cause us to feel unfulfilled empty and to feel like there is a void inside of us. Imagine if we ignored or didn’t have the sensations of hunger, thirst or physical pain, we wouldn’t last longer than a couple of days at most. Our emotions are just as important. Though “negative” emotions such as anger, loneliness, anxiety, stress and depression are very difficult to tolerate, they need to be listened to and addressed. Avoiding and numbing difficult emotions through substance use eventually results in even more difficult feelings of chronic unhappiness, emptiness, despair and a life devoid of meaning. Processing emotions means sifting through the feelings and paying attention to what they say.
The ability to address the feeling in a healthy way
Once you start to understand the purpose of your own feelings you can start addressing them so that they will pass. Take anger as an example. Anger is actually a very healthy emotion if addressed properly. It motivates us to take action to protect ourselves and what is important to us. It signals to us when a boundary has been crossed or a value has been compromised or it can be a response to more uncomfortable emotions such as shame, anxiety, or insecurity. Anger also arises when an essential need is being ignored such as the need to be understood, listened to or respected. Anger is a signal, not necessarily to act, but to take notice of what needs to be changed in our life. It might be that you need to enforce a boundary or communicate assertively with someone and state your needs.
The ability to perceive emotions and feelings in others and respond appropriately.
In order to develop meaningful, fulfilling relationships with others , we not only need to be able to deal with our own emotions, we need to be able to understand and empathise with other people. A lot of us have great difficulty sitting with distressing emotions of others and responding appropriately. It makes us really uncomfortable watching someone in distress and we do everything we can to make them stop expressing their pain. This is more about us and our own discomfort. We tell them it’s not that bad or that there are people worse off than them. We might offer advice and tell them what they should or shouldn’t do or simply excuse ourselves. We might even engage in one-upmanship and relate similar stories of our own that are worse. None of this helps. People need to express emotions to feel them and release them.
We all want to be listened to and understood. We want to feel visible and that we, and our feelings matter. Emotional pain needs to be expressed or it just builds up and causes a whole host of physical, psychological and emotional problems. Learning to pay attention to emotional cues in others, learning to sit with another’s pain without trying to fix it, and responding with empathy, are the cornerstones of connection, love and belonging. If you can’t sit with your own emotions or make sense of them, you will rarely be able to do it with others.
Stopping using or drinking is not sobriety, it is abstinence. Sobriety is learning to respond to people, situations and feelings in more healthy and productive ways.