Managing Your Feelings Without Substances

June 7, 2016

Does having a cigarette can make you feel more energized and focused? Does having a drink can make you feel less depressed, less anxious or help wind down tension at the end of a long day. The reality is, people use substances because they have an effect that they appreciate. The problem for some however is that the effect of substances is inherently short term. Once the effect has passed, you may find that you want to feel those effects again because the underlying state of being is uncomfortable in some way. For example, if a couple of drinks is the way you relax, you may find yourself feeling tense and irritable without them. If you use a substance to help you feel socially relaxed, when you don’t use, you may find yourself avoiding social situations and then feeling lonely and isolated. It may be that you have been using substances for a long period of time and feel like you have lost all skill (or maybe never developed skills) at managing your feelings without drugs or alcohol (or other compulsive behaviors).

If you are trying to reduce or stop using substances (or engaging in other compulsive behaviors), you will probably find that you have to learn to deal with your feelings in a different way. As you consider this idea, keep in mind that managing your feelings is a learned skill and learning is shaped by experience. While it may be that you have been using substances for a long time to alter your feeling state, the issue of knowing how to manage your feelings may go back farther than that. It may be that you did not learn how to manage your feelings because you grew up in an environment where feelings (typically negative states such as anger, pain, fear, sadness, disappointment) were not addressed or even actively avoided. As a result, you may not have “learned” how to deal with your feelings effectively long before substance became a way that you managed them. If this is the case, have some compassion for yourself as you start down the path of learning how to deal with your feelings without the use of drugs or alcohol.

You might be asking, “Why on earth would I want to let myself bad?!” Contrary to how bad they feel at times, feelings are not the enemy. They are simply data that tells you something about your environment or experience. In fact, rather than being the enemy, being aware of your feelings can help you make better decisions in your life. For instance, anger, a feeling a lot of people try to avoid (by having a few drinks or getting high), is a natural response to certain situations. It is typically is a sign that something in your environment is distressing or dangerous and needs to change. If you block your awareness of anger out, you put yourself at risk for missing important information that can help you make good decisions. For example, if you deny that you are angry about the way someone treats you, you could end up staying in a relationship with a person who repeatedly makes you feel bad, or worse even hurts you emotionally or physically.

Feelings and Cravings:
As you begin to try and make changes in your relationship with substances (or other compulsive behaviors), you will likely need to establish a healthier relationship with your feelings! If you find that you are having an urge to return to your substance, in spite of your goals, try to step back and see if you are having a hard time dealing with your feelings, whatever they may be. When you get hit with cravings it is important to ask yourself:

  • What am I feeling?
  • What is happening, what is provoking it?
  • While I may feel like I just want to use, what is it that I really want (e.g., my partner to stop nagging me, to feel less depressed)?

Many people are surprised by the intensity of the feelings that come up once they reduce or stop using substance. This speaks to how effective the substance was in blocking or altering them! If you find this to be happening to you (getting more angry, feeling very depressed, having panic attacks), you may want to consider the following:

  • Talking to someone you trust about how you are feeling. Sometimes just getting the feeling off your chest can reduce it’s intensity and make it more bearable
  • Keep in mind that feelings are just like substances. Most of them are short lived. It may be that you don’t need to “do anything” in response to a feeling, other than just notice you are feeling it. Activities like meditation and yoga can help you develop the skill of observing and sitting with a feeling.
  • If you find the feelings are unbearable and don’t actually pass, you may want to consider speaking with a psychiatrist. A medication consult may help you understand all of your options and whether your brain chemistry is playing a role in your struggle.
  • Seek out the help of a therapist trained in treating substance use. There are a variety of skills you can learn in treatment that will help you learn to manage your feelings in a way that supports your goals around your use of substances.
  • Find a support group. Lots of people have successfully changed their relationship to substances and they can help you find your way in the early stages. They can be the inspiration you need when you are doubting whether making a change is worth the discomfort you are feeling.

As you go through the process, remember that continuing to avoid substance use will help you get a handle on your feelings, likes, dislikes, wants, and needs. If you keep returning to a substance in response to a feeling, you are likely delaying the learning process since the substance will only help you manage your feelings in the short-term. Get the support you need and trust that you can “learn” to manage your feelings in healthy ways that are sustainable over the long haul. And what you learn from your feelings might surprise you and help you make better choices in your life.

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