Each person’s ability to regulate their own emotions has a great impact on their personal well-being and the quality of their relationships. People struggling with addiction are often poor at regulating their own emotions and this is one of the main reasons they will use substances. One of the many things the guys here at SCHC learn is how to deal with themselves and find better ways to cope with difficult feelings. Feelings such as boredom or loneliness can be a big trigger for a person to use drugs or alcohol, so finding better ways to deal with these feelings is essential.
Bill Wilson, who helped developed Alcoholics Anonymous, was the first to write about the struggle alcoholics have in dealing with their emotions. In 1958, he coined the term Emotional Sobriety, which means essentially not letting your emotions run your life, and not stuffing them either. The field of psychology at large did not start investigating this until the 1990s, and now it is highly researched and written about the topic of Emotion Regulation. It is widely recognized now that emotional self-regulation is an important skill for everyone and is a predictor of good mental health.
Given the importance of this concept, I wanted to take the series for this month to go through how emotion regulation is first developed in the person, and how it can be learned throughout life. I want to share with you some effective and ineffective ways to regulate your own emotions, and I also want to explain why this is such an important topic for the loved ones of an addicted person, such as yourself.
Here at SCHC, we emphasize personal responsibility to our clients and their families. One of our big messages is that each person is the author of their own life. You cannot fix or change your loved one, you cannot remove their addiction for them. Although as humans we do depend on one another, each of us can only take care of ourselves ultimately. This is why it is important to learn how to manage our own emotions and not always look to someone else or something else to do it for us.
Development of Emotional Self-Regulation
Calming ourselves down when we are angry or upset and trying to pick ourselves up when we are in the dumps is a part of life. We all go through good and bad times and we are sometimes better at dealing with it at certain times than at others. And, while it is nice when someone helps us through a tough time, we need to be able to depend on ourselves. But, like most things, we were not born with this ability, we had to learn it.
Just like with our Attachment style, our ability to self-soothe actually develops in relationship to our first caregivers. In fact, our attachment style predicts what kinds of emotional regulation tactics we use. If you tend to be anxious then you will likely lean towards exaggerating and intensifying distress signals to try and get others to help you feel better. If you are more on the avoidant side, then you go the opposite direction and are more inclined to suppress emotions.
We all learned in interaction with our caregivers how to regulate our emotions, and from watching them and how they dealt with their own emotions. For example, when you were growing up was it ok to cry if you were upset, or was this frowned upon? Did your parents argue loudly, or talk things through calmly? An invalidating environment during our development can lead to emotional dysregulation, or not understanding or being able to modulate our emotions later. This makes sense if you think about your daily life, most likely times where you felt most uneasy are when you are getting confusing messages. For example, when you feel one way and someone tells you that you should not feel that way.
Our sense of self also has an effect on how we deal with our emotions. The stronger our sense of self, the more confident we are in ourselves, the more self-awareness we have, and the better we will be at dealing with our own emotions in effective ways. This is because we have a sense that we can trust ourselves and rely on ourselves. This is why one of the big questions we ask the guys here at SCHC to grapple with is “Who am I”. This is a basic question that each person must come to terms with within their development. A lot of this identity work is done in our adolescence, but many life circumstances can get in the way and hamper our growth. We can also lose ourselves along the way if we become too caught up in things outside ourselves. The stronger our confidence is in our authentic self, the less we can be influenced by others without our consent and the less likely we will feel insecure.
To be able to regulate our emotions it is helpful to recognize them. This is not always necessary because we can change the way we feel without even knowing what we felt in the first place. But if we can recognize our feelings then this allows us the opportunity to accept our feelings and choose what to do with them. For example, if I am apprehensive about going to a social event I can recognize that I am a shy person and being around people makes me nervous. I can comfort myself with some compassionate self-talk and encourage myself to push through my anxiety knowing that in doing so I will build my confidence. By accepting and regulating my fear I will become less socially anxious over time, whereas if I do not regulate my fear and instead stay home my social anxiety will grow.
Many of you have probably heard or already practice mindfulness skills, these can be very helpful when we are trying to regulate our emotions. Essentially, Mindfulness is paying attention to the here and now and trying not to dwell in the past or projected future. If we are in a safe place currently and are feeling upset this is often because we are thinking about something that happened in the past or something we are worried about in the future. Appreciating what is in the moment can help us to calm ourselves and get some perspective.
So, recognizing and accepting our emotions is important, and so is understanding them as what they are: information. We have many senses that are continually collecting information for us to process, and our thoughts and feelings are bits of information that we need to be able to make decisions. To make good decisions we need to take everything into account and not just our feelings. This is what Marsha Linehan calls using our Wise Mind. Marsha Linehan is a well-known psychologist who developed Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). DBT was initially developed specifically for people struggling with Borderline Personality Disorder, which has the defining feature of poor emotional regulation. A wise Mind is a balance of both our Logical Brain and our Emotional brain. We need both to make good well balanced decisions. This is another reason why emotional regulation is important.
Developing our skills in emotion self-regulation is ongoing throughout our lives, and while it takes more time and effort to change ineffective patterns the older we get, it is still possible. I want to share some effective ways to self-regulate your emotions, such as Reappraisal, and ways that are problematic, such as Suppression, so please join me next week.
Do’s and Don’ts of Emotional Self-Regulation
We all have our own ways to regulate our emotions, and some of them are more helpful than others. During this week’s video, I would like to share a couple of effective skills and a few ways that most of us utilize, but are shown to be not helpful in the long run.
For example, we all stuff our feelings sometimes, and sometimes at that moment that is the best option for us. It can be helpful initially because suppressing our feelings saves us from the immediate stress and averts a potentially bad situation. However, in the long run, stuffing our feelings can lead to adverse mental health symptoms such as anxiety and depression.
One of the most effective ways to regulate our emotions is through Reappraisal. We ask the guys here at SCHC to do this often when something upsets them. When you reappraise a situation, you take ownership of your interpretation and then reassess it to see if it is the best interpretation or if it is leading to your anger or upset. For example, imagine someone cutting you off in traffic. If you interpret their action as a lack of care for your safety, you will likely get angry. However, if you re-frame them cutting you off as being due to something important going on for them like they are trying to get to the hospital because their wife is in labour, then you will most likely not feel angry. One of the best ways to stay calm emotionally and be the author of your own life is to not take things personally.
Another common way that people try to change the way they feel is by distraction. Again, this method can be quite effective in the moment and is often used as a harm reduction measure for people that would otherwise engage in substance use, or over-eating. Unfortunately, it is not a full solution for any recurring type of issues. For example, if every time you feel lonely you reach for some food, then distracting can be helpful at the moment to avoid over-eating, but distraction is not going to solve your loneliness. Distraction can be a helpful tactic when we are in “early recovery” from an issue, but using distraction chronically can lead to issues becoming worse, especially if they need to be addressed in a timely fashion.
Finding healthy ways to comfort ourselves when we are hurt or disappointed is important for gaining and maintaining control of our emotions. We cannot depend on others, even if they were the ones to hurt us, to make us feel better. This is particularly true of loved ones of addicted people, addiction is selfish in its very nature. Consider your self-talk, something as simple as our self-talk can either help us or make us feel worse. I encourage people to monitor the way that they speak to themselves, and if it is harsh then try to change it to the tone you would use with a good friend.