If you carry joy in your heart, you can heal any moment.
– Carlos Santana
Whether we’re going through a major life transition, dealing with the death of a loved one, or simply allowing ourselves to feel, we may find ourselves dealing with intense feelings at any point in our lives, and for any variety of reasons.
In a previous blog post, we explored emotion as a gateway to meaning and purpose, but what about those times when emotions become so overwhelming that they lead to suffering?
Though sitting with discomfort can certainly be a source of growth, we may need a break from heavier feelings at times so we can face them with fresh eyes and minds, or get on with the necessities of our day-to-day.
For many people, substance use or addictive behaviours provide that sort of break. In cases where these have become the go-to tool for dealing with difficult feelings, it’s easy to forget that there are other tools or options available. This is often what we see when addictive substances or behaviours are involved: the very chemistry of our brain has changed in such a way that the substance or behaviour feels like our only option. We become dependent on those substances or processes as a way of dealing with difficult feelings.
And yet, there are many other ways that we can manage intense feelings, and having a visual reminder of these other ways can help. In this article, we will look at three different lists that can help us deal with overwhelming emotions.
While these lists can be simply imagined rather than written, writing them down can provide something to reference and focus on whenever the going gets tough. The simpler and more accessible the tool, the more likely it is to be helpful and to be utilized when there is a higher draw to coping patterns of addiction and problematic substance use and behaviours.
So, even if you think you don’t need these lists at this moment… Why not think ahead and have some new tools at your disposal?
List 1: Things To Be Grateful For
The world is full of challenges, problems, and hardships, many of which affect our own lives. And yet, we all know at some deep level that our lives could be much worse than they currently are, and that we have a lot to be thankful for.
Making a list of things that one is grateful for can be a very therapeutic and grounding experience. Moreover, practicing an attitude of gratitude has been shown to have all sorts of positive effects on mental and physical health, as well as social wellbeing.
A list of these things doesn’t necessarily have to focus on one’s own luck… Much like Maria in The Sound of Music, one can be grateful for everything from raindrops on roses to whiskers on kittens. Whether it’s a particular relationship you treasure, or a particular style of shoe, there are likely many things that you are grateful for and that bring you joy.
Putting together a list of these things can not only provide opportunities for insight into who you are in a positive and lighthearted way, but can also make it easier to remember the things that bring you joy when you need that joy in your life, especially during times when everything feels bleak or overwhelming.
If you don’t know where to start, I recommend reading Neil Pasricha’s The Book of Awesome for inspiration… you might be surprised how easy it is to celebrate the little things simply by remembering them.
List 2: Your Preferred Activities
I remember the first time I heard the term “preferred activities”. I had started a new job at a residential care home for people with disabilities and was familiarizing myself with the terminology. I remember asking what the term meant and getting the response that it meant exactly what it sounded like: a list of things that a particular resident likes to do.
I also remember thinking wow, what a concept! I started to think about my own preferred activities: mountain biking, backgammon, cooking, solving puzzles, shopping for groceries, reading a book… the list goes on.
There are lots of activities that I like, and yet I don’t consider myself someone who is happy doing whatever. I know that there are a lot of activities that I really don’t enjoy which others do. I also recognize that there are things that I used to like but don’t any longer (e.g. reading ghost stories), or didn’t enjoy in the past but now do (e.g. skateboarding). In short, the list of things that each of us likes to do is unique and dynamic over the course of our lives.
The DC Department on Disability Services has a great list of preferred activities that can help get you started. The concept seems to be well-appreciated among services and supports for people with disabilities, but getting to know your preferred activities is something that could be useful for anyone. What’s more, when the people around you are aware of your preferred activities, they can also better support you in helping yourself.
Being aware of your preferred activities and discovering new ones can help in difficult times. A list of these activities (whether mentally or written down) is yet another tool that can be of help at times where we’ve forgotten what it is we even like to do. The simple act of looking at the list can be helpful, as it grounds us in the things we enjoy to do. Moreover, spending time with this list provides opportunities to reflect on new things we’ve discovered that we enjoy doing and add them to the list, including things we’ve discovered in recovery. What’s more, picking an activity or two on the list can provide a real-time alternative to problematic substance use and behaviours, as it reminds us that other options are available.
The last list that I’ll cover in this article is a list of resources that you can access when you need them. Resources can include detox services, peer support groups; grief circles, recovery meetings, mental health helplines, harm reduction groups, helpful blogs, mobile apps, and many others—including, of course, a list of things to be grateful for and a list of preferred activities!
Of the three lists we’ve mentioned here, this is one which you should definitely try to create in advance or outside of tough times if possible. It might be challenging to write such a list in the midst of a personal struggle, as we can be preoccupied with other thoughts and priorities, which is why I recommend working on your resource list before you need it. Much like a fire drill allows us to familiarize ourselves with the exit routes and tools to put out a fire before we need them, making a resource list prepares us for when the going gets tough.
But resource lists don’t need to be endless and cover everything anyone could ever need; they should be a good fit for your needs specifically, and nobody knows what those needs are better than you. As such, resource lists need to be personalized and relevant in order to be useful.
The Post-Treatment Services Team at Sunshine Coast Health Centre and the Georgia Strait Women’s Clinic work with clients to develop an individualized and relevant resource list before clients leave treatment as part of their Post-Treatment Care Plan. The plan addresses what clients will do to continue working on themselves after treatment, what services and resources they will access when they need to or feel a certain way, and what support systems such as friends/family they plan to connect with overall or in times of need.
By being proactive and listing our resources in advance, we can better set ourselves up for growth and success.
Ionatan Waisgluss is a writer, educator and web developer living in the qathet region of British Columbia. He is the founder of SquareByte.ca