How To Effectively Manage Emotional Triggers in Sobriety
The process of sobriety is difficult and comes with a lot of emotional baggage. What are you supposed to do with all of it? Lugging it around forever is not an option.
You may find you’re sensitive in sobriety. Everything seems to spark an intense emotional response, and you’re sick of feeling like a teenager who didn’t get his or her way.
One minute you’re happy, and the next, you feel like punching a wall because someone ate the last packet of Oreos in the cupboard.
The great news is that you don’t have to carry on like this!
Let’s talk about what’s really going on and what you can do to overcome it.
What is an emotional trigger?
An emotional trigger, simply put, is something that provokes a strong emotional reaction in you. Something happens, or someone says something, and your brain perceives it as a threat (whether rationally or not), and then you react.
Psych Central has a useful definition of triggers that we can work with.
“A trigger is something that sets off a memory tape or flashback transporting the person back to the event of her/his original trauma.”
We’re going to examine how this plays out in sobriety and what you can do about it.
Alcoholics and Emotional Triggers
Somewhere along the way, those of us who abused alcohol learned to numb our emotions with a drink.
Anger, fear, resentment, shame, humiliation, loss, stress, excessive joy – any of these can trigger the urge to get wasted. The longer you drink, the more reasons you’ll find to keep drinking.
Things that would’ve been no big deal or manageable in the past become reasons to get drunk.
After years of choosing alcohol to be your emotional balm, you’re likely to find that you lack any sort of healthy coping skills for the wide arrange of emotions that come with being a human.
When you pile on past traumas or abuse, the load becomes particularly heavy.
Did you know alcohol makes you more emotionally reactive?
Another point we should note is the role alcohol consumption plays in your ability to handle stress.
Alcohol is inflammatory, which negatively impacts your gut health and brain in ways that (among other things) leads to decreased mood and lower baseline stress tolerance.
Additionally, studies have shown that poor emotional regulation skills and an inability to tolerate negative emotions are correlated with alcohol abuse.
So frequent drinking enters you into the horrible cycle of depression, anxiety, anger, and aggression, which we try to cope with by drinking more. That, in turn, further impairs our ability to regulate emotions well.
And round and round we go.
It’s why, in addition to ongoing therapy and addiction treatment, learning good emotional regulation skills is helpful for maintaining sobriety long-term.
More>> Why Alcohol Changes Your Personality (Even When You’re Not Drinking)
Emotional Triggers in Sobriety
It’s normal in early sobriety to feel like an emotional toddler. In many ways, you are.
How do you handle having an overbearing mother while sober? What about managing the stress of working full time and parenting? Or that jerk who took your parking spot and made your head want to explode with rage?
Sobriety is raw.
You’ve stripped away your favorite coping mechanism and now you have to learn how to be a functioning adult without a safety net.
It’s a lot.
But it’s manageable.
Coping with Triggers in Sobriety
1. Acknowledge what’s going on.
Learning how to step back during an emotional trigger is an important first step. When you go from 0 to 100 in an instant, something’s not right.
Let’s use an example.
Say you’ve got an obnoxious boss who rubs you the wrong way. You’re at your desk, tearing into a project and she stops by to check in.
On a whim, she decides she wants you to change something in the project that will require you to redo a significant portion of the work you’ve completed.
And she’s a little too flippant about it.
As soon as she leaves, you’re hit with a wave of anger. Your cheeks flush, the hairs on your arms stand up, and your heart starts racing. You’re sweating. Suddenly, you have an overwhelming urge to toss your computer out of a window. Or punch somebody. Maybe both.
I need a drink.
Do you have a right to be angry about your boss intruding on your project and adding extra work for you? Sure.
Does it merit this full-blown Hulk rage? No.
The first step in handling life as the sober hero that you are destined to be is to recognize when you’re overreacting.
Being able to pause at this moment before your brain starts whipping you into a frenzy is critically important.
Step back from yourself.
Okay, deep breath. I’m sweating. My heart is pounding. There’s too much anger in me right now. This is not a healthy or proportionate response to what just happened.
The simple act of announcing out loud (or in your head) that you’re having a bad, emotional reaction is powerful enough to take the edge off.
Then, you make the choice to deal with it.
Not drink over it. Or feel sorry for yourself for having such a terrible boss. And definitely not heading over to Nathan’s desk in accounting because you know he hates her just as much as you do, and you’d like to a proper rant fest.
You’re going to deal with it.
2. Learn healthy ways to cope with emotional triggers.
You need some in-the-moment coping strategies and longer-term strategies as well.
When you get hit by a powerful emotion, the first step is to acknowledge what’s going on. Don’t get swept up in it. Call it as you see it.
Then, you need to implement some quick strategies to settle your brain and body so that you can appropriately tackle whatever is going on.
Here are a few things you can do to calm yourself down that won’t take but a few minutes.
- Breathe. Close your eyes. Breathe in for four seconds. Hold for four seconds. Exhale for eight seconds. Do this a few times (or at least until you feel halfway sane again.)
- Talk a walk. Depending on your work situation, take a five-minute stroll outside or head down the hallway, go to the bathroom, etc. Find a way to physically remove yourself from your current environment so that you can reset.
- Write it out. If you’ve got a journal with you, come back from your bathroom break and give yourself about five minutes to pour out everything you’re feeling onto a page.
For more strategies and a more in-depth perspective on handling emotions in sobriety, I recommend watching the following video:
Long-Term Coping Strategies For Emotional Triggers
The aforementioned strategies are just tiny, little resets. They won’t, on their own, fix anything at the root of your reactions.
Sort of like running cold water on a burn.
I HIGHLY recommend either getting into a recovery program like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or SMART Recovery and/or therapy. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is especially good for helping us relearn how to manage our emotions in a healthier way.
Online Therapy Options and Resources
If you’re unable to get to a counselor in-person, there are several online options available to you. I’ve mentioned BetterHelp before which is a comprehensive online therapy platform with a variety of options depending on your budget and needs. It’s also the program I use for therapy.
They’ve got message therapy (counseling via text) as well as live counseling via video. Their therapists have a wide range of specialties, including alcohol addiction, and they really do make an effort to pair you with the right person. If something isn’t working for you, you’re easily able to switch.
You don’t have to figure this out on your own.
Additional Long-Term Tools For Tackling Emotional Triggers
- Exercise. It’s good for you and it gives you a way to redirect all that energy. Exercise is incredibly important for repairing some of the physical and emotional damage of drinking. It doesn’t have to be intense. Taking a 20-minute walk while listening to your favorite podcast or audiobook counts.
- Meditation. I firmly believe that daily meditation practice is a top-five must-have tool for any healthy lifestyle. For those of us in sobriety, it’s especially important because it helps us repair some of the damage drinking has done to our brains. Think of it as an exercise for the mind.
- Journaling. You need space to process your stuff every day. It doesn’t have to be fancy. A standard composition notebook and pen or pencil will do. Journaling in sobriety helps you find out what’s at the root of your emotions. Why DID you get crazed when your boss asked for revisions on that project? What’s at the root? You might find that your boss is activating some deep-seated issues you carry around about not feeling good enough. Maybe she reminds you of your over-demanding mother. Whatever it is, the more you understand it, the more you can release yourself from it.
3. Proactively deal with emotional triggers.
The best defense is a good offense. Set yourself up for success. Sobriety is very good at showing you where the broken parts are. Use that to your advantage.
If you know you have issues with your boss, your responsibility is to manage the things you can control about the situation. Assuming you’re not quitting your job, the only thing you can control is your own work and your reaction to what she says to you.
If you see her coming, you have to be ready.
With a little bit of time and work (see numbers 1 and 2), you’ll get to the point where you can say, “Okay, here she comes. I’ve done my best work. If she wants me to change something, it’s not a value judgment on me or my worth as an employee.”
If you can detach from the usual overreaction to her, you’ll be able to speak with her in ways that are actually productive to your shared goals – to get whatever project done correctly. Which is the point, right?
And if you can’t (because maybe she really IS a terrible boss), then you know you need to start looking for work elsewhere.
Either way, you’re controlling how this situation is going to impact you emotionally.
Even if your instinct is to create a five-alarm fire in your brain, you’re still empowered to stop it before it has a chance to spread and deal with it differently.
4. Always ask WHY.
You’ve spent however many years now allowing emotions to hit you in the face and then drink them away. On some level, we keep trying this method in sobriety.
We swat at emotions like they’re flies. Or we bury them in something new like cookies and cake.
What we NEED to do is understand and manage them.
Not the most fun work, but it’s effective. Instead of running from, covering up, or ignoring emotional triggers, try to understand them.
Journaling is an incredible tool for doing this as is talk therapy.
How to use WHY to get to the root of a problem.
Going back to your boss. She comes in and asks you to do something that really sets you off. There’s a lump in your throat and an urge to pound your fist on the desk.
What about her statement has you so riled up?
Because she’s always asking for these last-minute changes.
Why does that get to you so much?
Because I don’t like wasting my time. She makes me feel like I waste my time!
Why does she make you feel like you waste your time?
Because nothing is ever good enough for her! What’s the point of doing all this work if it’s not good enough?
Why do you believe that?
Because she’s always asking me to change stuff.
Is that because of the quality of the work or because she wants to go a different direction?
Usually, it’s because she wants to add something in. Or she doesn’t like something.
Why is that a problem?
Because it makes me feel like I can’t do anything right.
Why does her criticism trigger that response in you?
Because I don’t think I can do anything right.
And there it is.
This is just an example. Your WHY could lead to any number of places. But you’re talking yourself down off a ledge. What’s really going on? You can’t fix a problem that you don’t understand.
The process of unpacking the many layers to your emotional triggers is an effective way to disarm them. You’ll feel calmer and more in control as you dive deeper.
5. Deal with the real problem.
Once you start to understand what’s at the root of your emotional triggers, you can work on healing them.
Whether it’s an underlying belief that you’re not worthy/lovable/good or a fear of failure, the ability to know why you’re having an internal meltdown is a powerful tool for dismantling it.
Again, this stuff is where a lot of therapy and recovery programs come in handy. It’s new terrain that most people need to support and guidance to get through.
More>> What To Talk About In Therapy (When You Don’t Know Where To Start)
Of course, none of this is possible without the right mindset.
You have to know that you’re being emotionally reactive AND be willing to change that.
Sometimes people get sober and feel entitled to their anger. They’re pissed off. Sobriety is something that feels thrust upon them and now they hate their life.
Maybe you’re there right now.
You’re not sure why, but you’re angry at everyone and everything, including yourself. That’s normal. We’ve ALL been there.
But what do you want to do about it?
Because here’s what will NOT happen.
People are not going to magically change once you quit drinking. They’re not going to bend perfectly into a shape that suits your needs. Some may try, but they’ll make mistakes. Others will disappoint you completely.
The world will not get kinder or less complicated. Nor will it became easier to stay sober.
We wish it did – that sobriety could work that way.
When you drank, you gave up control over your life. You said, “I’m tapping out. I can’t handle this, so I’m going to drink until things feel good again.”
Over time, your brain started to rely on that process to function.
Sobriety is your way of reclaiming control of your life. Of getting out of that cycle and saying, “Okay, I’m ready to handle this stuff now.”
Do the work.
Sobriety is ripe with opportunities to self-sabotage. If you read articles like this and roll your eyes, saying, “That’s stupid. It would never work for me,” then you are 100% correct, my friend.
But I get why you’re saying that.
I’ve had moments in my life where I believed myself to be so incredibly special that NOTHING could possibly help me.
My problems were unique.
I knew better than anyone that I was a hopeless case and I reveled in my hopelessness. It was my identity: the special drunk girl for whom there is no workable solution.
Who could possibly understand her?
On some level, I think we lean into this unfixable persona as a way of allowing our little addict voice to win.
See? Nothing works for you. All of this stuff is stupid. Do you know what does work? Drinking. You might as well.
I pretended to want sobriety for a long time but refused to put forth any real effort. I created a story in my mind that none of it was going to work, which allowed me to claim defeat before I’d even started.
If that sounds familiar right now, I have good news.
You can change it.
Feeling Empowered To Manage Emotional Triggers
Regardless of the narrative in your head right now, I want to reassure you that you DO have the ability to find solutions to your problems.
You may not like them. It will surely be an uncomfortable process. But man are you going to love where it gets you.
Even if my ideas don’t work for you, there is something out there that will.
You just have to genuinely try.
Trust the process and lean on your support networks. If you’re struggling with that last bit, the Soberish Facebook Group is a wonderful, private page with supportive people who know what you’re going through and are here to help.
I’m excited for you because I know what’s on the other side of this big, ugly hill and I believe in your ability to get there.
Your blog is fantastic!
I continue to learn how to cope with emotions, but I am so much better now!
Drinking made me resentful, angry, unable to deal with unpleasant emotions.
Thank you so much, Wendy!