What to Do When Feelings Make You Want to Use

Emotions are often what drive people to drink or use. Maybe you often drank alcohol when you felt stressed, smoked pot when you felt depressed or used cocaine when you wanted to celebrate. Now just having those feelings triggers a restless desire to use – a craving. Commonly triggering feelings include anxiety, anger, boredom, depression, loneliness, even excitement and joy.

Learning to manage “feeling triggers” can be a challenge. Most of us, alcoholics and addicts included, don’t exactly enjoy feelings. Addictive behavior is often a way to escape or hide from strong emotions. But in recovery you are learning to do things differently. Here are some suggestions for what to do when a feeling triggers cravings for you:

  1. Notice what’s happening. Observe the feeling and see if you can identify it. Many people with addictive behaviors have become so accustomed to avoiding emotions, they discover they have very limited understanding of their feelings. Take this as an opportunity to get to know yourself better: Pay attention to the feeling, such as what led to it, how powerful it feels and where it seems to sit in your body. Give it a name. If feelings have been your enemy, now is the time to make friends.
  2. Sit with the feeling. Honor it. It isn’t actually there to do you harm. The Buddhists say: “What we resist persists.” So take the struggle out of it. Feelings are messages; instead of resisting the message, try to take it in. Think about what this feeling is trying to tell you. For example, anger is often a sign that your boundaries have been crossed – feeling angry can clue you in to where your boundaries are. Sadness or fear can tell you something about what you value most – you are sad or afraid to lose those things. Loneliness may be a clue that you need more connection in your life; think about who you might reach out to or where you might find new people to forge relationships with. Use a journal to reflect on what you learn about your feelings.
  3. Distract yourself from overwhelming emotions. While it is important to learn to sit with and tolerate your feelings, there are times when it is best to turn down the volume on those feelings instead. You can do this by distracting yourself. It is best to use distraction if you find the emotions are building to stronger and stronger intensity, you find yourself experiencing powerful cravings or planning a relapse or you are at risk for harming yourself or others. In a calm moment, get prepared by creating a list of places you can go, activities you can do and people you can contact or spend time with if your feeling triggers become overwhelming. Keep your list in a safe, easily accessible place.

Remember, feelings are temporary states. As time goes by in recovery, you will be better able to cope with your feelings – even the unpleasant ones. Practice the techniques above and embrace the life you are living, with all the many feelings that come with it!

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