There comes the point in sobriety where you have to force yourself to confront difficult emotions without any crutches.
These are not easy moments, nor are they completely unfamiliar to you. In fact, these are the same thoughts and memories that would, in another life, drive you to open the bottle and get drunk.
But now that you’re sober, there’s a new, naked vulnerability invading your inner world, and it’s going to get harder before it gets easier.
Dealing With Regret and Shame in Early Sobriety
And boy is it a doozy.
This work can be extra challenging when adding long-term anxiety and depression into the mix. Anxiety is a particularly cruel mistress because she will exacerbate the process of coming to grips with what you’ve done in the past.
Those mistakes, embarrassing moments, character flaws, and bad choices thrive inside an anxious mind. They pop up in unlikely places.
You could be enjoying a perfectly lovely meal with equally lovely company only to be interrupted by a reminder of something awful and unrelated from the past.
Where the hell did this come from?
You try to shrug it off, but now it’s there, insisting on your thoughts and distracting you from your meal.
Your mood has shifted. It’s got you.
In the past, the go-to solution was always to have some drinks and check out, even though you knew that you were merely delaying the inevitable, that at any moment the drink could crank the thoughts back up to ten and you would be “that girl” emotionally unloading on your unsuspecting friends or social media.
Or maybe you would be spared until the morning when the sun would bring terrible hangxiety, physical jitters, and a racing mind that cannot be stopped. Everything you tried to hide from is now rattling around in your brain and body.
Good luck getting to work on time, sister.
After you clear those first initial hurdles in sobriety, the time comes when you’ve got to face some of the demons you’ve been avoiding. This took a while for me.
Everything else would have to wait. But now that I’ve gotten myself into a more stable place, I’m slowly coming to grips with some larger issues that need tending, and believe me, there are MANY.
I was reading an article on Ashwood Recovery’s website and a section on emotional sobriety really stood out to me. It’s short, so I will share here:
“One of the biggest challenges in early recovery is re-learning how to have appropriate emotional responses to everyday life. Staying on as even a keel as possible and regulating excessively high and low feelings is known as “emotional sobriety”, and is as much a lifetime project as staying sober. In fact, learning to regulate too-strong emotions is a key to avoiding relapse.
Overly-powerful emotions, especially negative ones, can lead to related feelings of guilt, shame, pain, regret, or discomfort, and in the addicted mind – and in the recently-addicted mind – these negative feelings have habitually been dealt with by masking the pain with drugs or alcohol.
Since the goal of recovery is abstinence, the individual has to cultivate new skills for dealing with the almost-unpredictable emotional spectrum caused by a brain that is trying to regulate itself, as well as the trials and travails of everyday life.”
Sobriety can sometimes feel like you’re an emotional toddler, and there are days when it majorly sucks. I find myself getting red in the face or my chest tightening over the most asinine things.
My husband left an empty bottle in the bathroom for the millionth time. Annoying? Sure. But why do I feel like crying about it?!
If you’re newly sober and starting to dive into what’s really going on inside your emotional world, do not be discouraged if you feel like you’re learning to ride a bike all over again.
Yes, you’re going to take some spills, and seeing other people riding around effortlessly without training wheels or helmets can be infuriating, but you’ll get there, too, with some time and practice.
Tips for Dealing With Tough Emotions in Sobriety
Some things that I have found useful when trying to wrestle with these inner demons:
1. Meditation or Other Mindfulness Practice
Meditation is helpful for a few reasons. It teaches you how to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and calm your entire body down when you’re overwhelmed. For me, that was often.
Meditation also changes the brain in ways that are particularly beneficial to people with a history of drinking. Alcohol can damage and change the shape of our brains in ways that make us more emotionally reactive and susceptible to cravings.
2. Resist the Urge to Dwell or Ruminate
Overthinking is one of the biggest threats to sobriety.
I have moments when I’m suddenly blindsided by memories of times I’ve done truly embarrassing things, got into a fight with someone, or said something horrible/stupid/regrettable.
These moments can feel overwhelming. Don’t fall down a rabbit hole. Name it, claim it, and keep it moving.
For example, I often get struck by negative thoughts about friendships I’ve lost or screwed up. I own it. Yeah, I’ve been a shitty friend in the past. I didn’t listen to others. I was flakey. I wasn’t good support for them. I can’t change the past.
I can apologize and try to make amends, or I can move forward with my life and hope for the best for them, but what I can’t do is go to a dark place and wallow. I can only forgive myself and change how I treat others moving forward.
3. Find A Creative Outlet
For me, it’s this blog and sometimes journaling or poetry. Some folks use art to let out feelings they don’t have words for or crafting, or remodeling, or any other number of projects that help feel meaningful and productive. Perhaps it’s partly distraction, but it’s a positive thing you can do to let out feelings you’re not accustomed to handling with a sober mind while keeping busy.
4. Talk Therapy
When you quit drinking, it’s imperative to have a strong sobriety support system in place. Some people attend meetings (like in AA), while others opt for traditional talk therapy or a combination of both.
Working with a trained therapist, especially someone who specializes in alcohol addiction is important, especially if you’re dealing with co-occurring disorders like anxiety and depression. We aren’t meant to get sober by ourselves.
You don’t have to figure this out on your own.
What happens next?
If our problems could magically vanish once we put down the bottle, sobriety would be such an easier journey. Unfortunately for us, it’s not that simple.
The bad memories, troubling thoughts, and old familiar pains are going to pop back up. It’s inevitable. But alcohol has never solved a single problem in your life or mine. So that’s the thing that has to keep us all moving forward, even on days we feel batshit crazy and alone.
This work is hard, but it gets better, and that’s the thing to remember. It’s going to get better. The past does not have to define us.