How to Deal with Anger in Early Sobriety

By: Nicole Slaughter Graham, Contributor

Quitting drinking is a feat in itself. 

When we focus on living our lives without alcohol, a lot can change very quickly. For many of us, alcohol became a salve and was ever-present in our daily activities. 

When we quit drinking, we realize we need to find new ways to live that don’t revolve around the bottle. We create new routines and find new things to do. We learn much about ourselves, our likes, our dislikes, our mental state, and our emotions. 

Emotions can be overwhelming in early recovery, and it takes a while to figure out how to manage them. One emotion, anger, might feel particularly overpowering, and for good reason. 

First and foremost, anger isn’t an emotion we openly talk about or learn to deal with in healthy ways. Culturally, anger is seen as dangerous and off-putting, even though it is a completely normal and natural emotion. This is especially true for women and people of color—particularly Black women. 

“We’re told that it’s unladylike,” says Jocellyn Harvey, writer and success coach. “We’re told that if we get angry that we’re being emotional. In recovery circles, we’re told that feeling anger is dangerous and that if we’re feeling angry we might go out and drink so it’s just best if we don’t feel that way.”

In early sobriety though, we must learn how to deal with anger in healthy and sustainable ways.

“Just like anything else that we don’t deal with, unresolved anger has the potential to set you up for drinking again,” says Todd Garlington, lead therapist at The Greenhouse Treatment Center.

Here’s how to get started navigating and dealing with anger in early recovery.

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Name it.

The first step in dealing with anger, says Harvey, is acknowledging it in the first place. 

“Name it,” she said. “Get comfortable with saying, ‘okay, I’m angry right now.’”

Don’t sugarcoat it, she says, by using words like “irritated” or phrases like “oh I’m feeling off right now.” Name it for what it is. 

For many, simply acknowledging that we experience anger is new territory. For those of us in recovery, it’s an important step toward learning how to manage such a complex emotion. Once we’ve named it and acknowledged that we experience anger—and that it is completely okay and normal to do so—we can work on managing it. 

“Even if I deny that I’m having a bad day, it just gets worse,” Harvey says. “When I just acknowledge that okay I’m angry right now, it automatically becomes easier to deal with.”

Learn how it feels in your body.

Naming anger is just the tipping point. For many, the experience of anger isn’t something we’re comfortable with or used to feeling, but it has physical cues that we can tune into.

Anger might manifest differently in the body from one person to the next, but there are some general cues to consider.

Feeling flushed or even cold, having gut distress, shaking, and being unable to think clearly are all signs of anger, Harvey says.

For some people, a heightened sense of anxiety, an increase in blood pressure, and seeing spots are signs of anger. 

Once you can tune into how this powerful emotion feels in your physical body, it becomes easier to recognize when it’s showing up, which is important.

“We can go from anger to rage in a split second,” says Garlington, adding that once someone hits rage, it’s hard to turn back.

Figure out what’s underneath the anger.

Anger, says Garlington, is a secondary emotion. There’s nearly always something driving this visceral response to a situation. 

“For a lot of people before they quit drinking or using, anger becomes the mainstay reaction,” he says. “It becomes a survival skill.”

In early recovery, anger might be one of the few emotions we can actually identify, and it takes time to learn how to dig into the emotion to figure out what’s behind it. 

“I’ve been hurt. I’m scared. I feel like I need to protect myself… all of these things are typically underneath the anger.”

Get physical.

Because anger shows up so strongly in the body, it’s important to find a way to physically release the emotion when it threatens to overpower you.

“Physical exertion is a great place to start,” says Garlington. “Working out with weights, using a punching bag or a speed bag, running—these are all great ways to physically work through anger.” 

Physical release is especially useful when the fury is so strong that nothing else is working. 

Exercise is also noted for releasing feel-good endorphins, which can help mitigate feelings, and when you’re actively punching a speed bag or working with weights, it’s hard to concentrate on anything but the moment. This active form of mindfulness helps you focus on what’s in front of you rather than what’s set you off. 

Tune in… or tune out.

Sometimes, you just need a break from your mind and the intensity of the feeling. 

“If you need to just take a few hours or a day and binge on Netflix, do it,” says Harvey. Tuning out, when done in moderation, is a form of self-care and can give you the break you need. Just be careful, because that Netflix binge can turn into avoidance, which presents a whole new set of problems. 

It might be that you need to tune in, which can look like a yoga session or mindfulness meditation. Both of these practices take concentration and effort, which like exercise, can help you tune into what you’re feeling and might help lessen the physical response. Once the physical response is lessened, anger becomes more manageable.

Talk about it.

The reasons we experience anger are endless, especially for the marginalized or underrepresented. In those early days in recovery, you might feel like an exposed nerve and everything might seem too bright or too intense.

“Low frustration tolerance early in recovery is pretty normal,” says Garlington. “Anything you can do to decrease frustration is helpful in those early days and months.”

Having a support network to talk about feelings and circumstances is essential, he says. And if that isn’t enough, never be ashamed to seek professional help.

“Working with a therapist is always a good idea,” he said. “It can help you decipher between anger and other emotions and learn how to regulate and address those emotions.”

* * * 

Emotions are hard. Early recovery is hard. Life can be hard. 

At the end of the day, give yourself some grace. You’re making huge changes in the way you live life and that is something to celebrate. You’re not going to get this perfect, that that’s completely okay. In fact, it’s just part of the human experience. You are learning how to live a fully expressed life, and there is beauty in the messiness of it all—even the anger.

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