Most people will face at least one crisis during their sobriety journey. Because that’s life. Whether politically and socially or personally, life is full of challenges and getting sober doesn’t necessarily take those challenges away. Collectively, we’ll face the repercussions of our political leaders, our impact on climate, and we’ll have to look deeper when social movements stare us in the face.
Personally, we’ll face changes big and small: breakups, the loss of loved ones, job changes, and more.
This past year, however, has been a crisis of epic proportion as we have collectively experienced a global trauma: COVID-19.
The way the pandemic changed the world also challenged the foundation of many people’s recovery as we navigated protecting our health and that of our loved ones. For many of us, the pandemic is not the only crisis we’ve faced during the past year. We’ve had to navigate loss, grief, and financial uncertainty. Some of us have lost family members, partners, jobs, homes, friends, and our well-being.
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Common Challenges People in Recovery Face
“Guilt and shame are at the top of the list” of emotions that people in early recovery face, says Steve Carleton, LCSW. This is a point that Keith Murphy, LPC, LCADC, also agrees with.
“I believe shame is at the core of addiction,” says Murphy.
He defines shame as “the sense of feeling defective, impotent, inadequate, inherently flawed or less than human.” Murphy contends that the fear of shame keeps people from making healing connections with others.
“Emotions, in general, can feel overwhelming and foreign if a person has been numbing them,” explains Carleton. This is because the individual has leaned on drugs or alcohol to avoid problems rather than using more healthy ways to process emotions.
Murphy argues that not knowing how to talk about the pain of addiction and recovery is key as well.
“I believe so much of a trauma response points to an absence of language that accurately reflects, connects to, and describes a person’s experience. Not being able to find the words keeps someone in the cycle of emotional pain,” he says.
Handling Difficult Emotions in Recovery
Despite the challenges people with substance problems face, it is possible to reverse that coping mechanism in favor of more healthy coping strategies. Just like recovery, it’s a process.
“It takes time for a person’s natural processes for coping with emotions to get jump-started again,” explains Carleton.
There are also other factors to consider, such as mental health disorders like anxiety or depression, and there are different ways to experience emotion. Like recovery, you have to find what resonates with you.
Mental Health Considerations
Mental health disorders play an important part in finding the right recovery.
“People need to start by identifying when the depression or anxiety began. Trying to figure out what came first, using or a mental health issue, is vital in choosing a treatment path,” says Carleton. He also points out that “the majority of people entering some type of residential care are depressed.”
However, he says, at least half the depression will naturally subside and reduce with abstinence and treatment.
Murphy advises processing the emotion.
“I always say be easy and talk about it, draw about it, read about it, and walk, do yoga, and move about it (meaning get into one’s body about it).”
He explains that feelings are often deeply tied to shame-based thoughts:
I’m not strong enough to handle what I experienced or how to cope with what’s happening even in recovery
I should be beyond this point: why am I still uneasy in this situation or with these people or with these thoughts or physical sensations?
These techniques form a vital part of the recovery process.
“So much of what we learned and how we’ve learned about ourselves plays a part in how we allow our emotions to inform our healing process,” says Murphy.
Carleton also advises awareness and feeling of emotion.
“It is vital that support systems encourage people in recovery to process, share, and at times let those emotions rip, even if it ends in a puddle of tears on the floor,” he says.
Over time, however, the process becomes easier, just like exercise.
“It is really painful in the beginning and you might even leave therapy feeling worse than when you showed up. The exhaustion and fatigue from opening the floodgates is both terrifying and a necessary release,” he says.
Many people come to therapy fearing their emotions and think it will be painful to experience them. However, Carleton says that’s often not the reality.
“More often I have found that, while people leave feeling tired and exhausted, overwhelming emotions do start to become a bit more palatable. In the end, we want to help people see that emotions are far worse when they are avoided as opposed to confronted.”
He contends that “pain shared is pain divided.”
When talking about processing emotions, it's important to acknowledge the privilege of treatment and accessing resources.
“So many people who experience difficult emotions in recovery cannot consider therapy—or get good long-term therapy,” Murphy says.
Access, cost, and time are often barriers to obtaining the services needed to work through emotions. Additionally, the mental health field is overwhelmingly white. Though things are changing as more Black and Brown individuals pursue careers in the psychological sciences, the American Psychological Association (APA) reported that as of 2015, 86% of U.S. psychologists were white and 88% of the health psychology service workforce was white.
How to Not Drink in Crisis
Practicing feeling your emotions may be one thing, but experiencing crises may present on a different scale altogether. What do you do when you experience the grief of losing a parent or go through a breakup? We’re talking heartbreaking loss and global pandemic-level challenges.
The experts say to be proactive, seek connections, and create structure.
“Find alternative ways to spend time and try to connect with friends who also do not drink alcohol. It is important to be mindful of the times of days and physical spaces when you would normally drink. Planning and building some structure in those moments can help anchor people in the decision to not drink,” explains Carleton.
Murphy says that managing shame plays a key role in handling a crisis.
“Returning to use for people practicing abstinence-based sobriety, I believe, has to do with shame and dealing with an emotion that seems intolerable and interminable,” he says. “In many cases, with shame being the driver and almost imperceptible for most people, people tend to believe they need to handle certain situations with unreal and almost heroic expectations.”
It’s also important to be visible in times of crisis and not isolate yourself, says Murphy.
“The longer you stay visible to moderately healthy and caring folx, the better you will feel and the farther away you can and will move away from a substance.“
Takeaway Tips for Crisis Management
We asked our experts for their top tips for dealing with crises like the BLM movement and uprising, the pandemic, insurrection, etc. Here are their tips:
- Find consistent—daily if possible—activities or behaviors that ground you. This might be as simple as a short walk around the block or more involved commitments like engaging in daily mindfulness practice.
- It is good to be informed on the news, but limiting news consumption is also healthy. For those spending copious amounts of time online and watching cable news, commit to spending a designated amount of time—may be an hour or less—a day checking the news.
- Connect with people! Anything is better than nothing, but make sure that some of the time spent with people is focused on topics other than the current crisis.
- Never act alone in any manner; there is no solo activism. Stay accountable—let people/friends who are not immediately involved in your form of protest know when you’re doing something.
- Expect to be drained and depleted.
- Ask your comrades and others to be mindful of their use and how they cope (activism evokes a trauma response); many people in certain spaces use substances that may activate a trauma response in someone who is working through their relationship with substances.
Just remember that crises happen in recovery. And like every other challenge, we can handle them with perspective, mindfulness, and self-compassion.
Free Mental Health Resources
For access to free and low-cost resources, check out the Additional Habit-Busting Resources in our article for The Temper on habit change.
Tempest also offers scholarships for those who are unable to afford the full membership. As an organization, we focus on giving scholarships to people from communities directly affected by addiction and who have typically been underrepresented within traditional recovery spaces—people who identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), LGBTQIA, disabled, veterans, or poor/working class. For more information, visit Tempest Scholarships.
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About the Author: Located in Portland, OR, Olivia Pennelle (Liv) is a writer, journalist, and content strategist. She is the founder of the popular site Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, a site dedicated to providing the ingredients to live a fulfilling life in recovery. Liv also co-founded the podcast Breaking Free: Your Recovery. Your Way Liv is passionate about challenging limiting mentalities and empowering others to direct their own lives, health, and recovery. She found recovery in 2012 and her pathway is a fluid patchwork of what works for her. You can find her articles across the web on podcasts and publications, including The Fix, Ravishly, Grok Nation, STAT News, and The Temper. You can follow her @livsrecoverykitchen and @breakingfreepodcast.