Early recovery feels a little bit like puberty. Teens and preteens often experience extreme emotions and fast-changing moods. The developing brain causes increased activity in the prefrontal cortex — the area responsible for functions such as emotional regulation, problem-solving and risk/reward calibration. As a result, teens tend to be more impulsive and irrational.
Just like puberty, drugs and alcohol alter the brain chemistry. Recovering addicts who have never truly experienced sadness may begin feeling sad to an extreme level. Or they may respond with anger to unfamiliar situations, while anger in reality is only a surface emotion manifested by other feelings, such as guilt or shame.
The most-important thing to remember is that your emotional roller-coaster is normal when you begin recovery. Same as a teen’s brain, the addict’s frontal cortex becomes significantly altered. And just like a teen, an addict’s reward center of the brain is off-balance.
You may have some work to do now in learning to regulate your emotional states. That’s why many 12-step recovery programs strongly advocate against starting new relationships — you have to focus on yourself first, as well as learn how to understand and respond to feelings without distractions.
As you’re learning to navigate this new territory, these are some things to keep in mind:
Emotional sobriety: The idea behind emotional sobriety is to maintain an even keel between the lows and the highs of the feelings you experience every day. This is an optimal state of emotion, and it will likely take a while to achieve.
Maintaining a balanced emotional center takes effort even for healthy individuals. Becoming emotionally whole is a long-term goal, so remember to practice your small steps toward achieving it, same as you would with any other aspect of your recovery.
Dealing with strong emotions: You may need to learn techniques for surviving these strong emotions that are new to you. As an addict, you likely turned to alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism for your feelings, and recovery doesn’t mean those triggers are automatically gone.
Emotional regulation: Part of your ability to regulate your emotional states stems from being able to recognize your emotions in the first place. Suppressing how you feel or giving into anger when you’re trying to cover another emotion may lead to other issues, like anxiety and depression.
Evolving stages: As you’re going through different recovery stages, your techniques for emotional regulation will change and evolve. For example, in early recovery it may be best to avoid certain situations that would induce anxiety; however, as you learn new behaviors and responses and become more resilient, you will be able to focus on more challenging situations.
Anger is not the only prominent emotion to expect. Fear, loneliness, shame — these are all normal. Don’t try to tackle this part of sobriety by yourself as you’re getting your life back.
A professional who is trained and experienced with addiction recovery can give you the tools you’ll need as well as help you understand the process that you’re going through. This person will also keep you accountable. Don’t go it alone.