Photo of Kattie Lail, peer coach in Sioux Falls, SD

Managing emotions in addiction recovery

Meet Kattie
Kattie grew up in a home with addiction and spent three years in federal prison for drug-related charges. She has a passion for criminal justice reform and wants to serve as a voice for those who are voiceless.

Q: I’m new to recovery. What should I do when my emotions overwhelm me?

A: What you’re feeling is completely normal. When we’re in early recovery from addiction, the realities of what we’re facing without a substance feel raw and scary.

Like many other people I know, my drug use started at an early age. When I got well, I had to learn coping skills that were healthy and didn’t revolve around drugs. It takes a lot of time and hard work, but it’s worth it. Slowly but surely, managing emotions will get easier.

When a member comes to me struggling with a lot of difficult emotions, I try to help them slow down, teach them how to pay attention to what they’re feeling and encourage them try new skills. This work of regulating emotions is often called emotional intelligence. Here are a few brief ideas to improve your emotional intelligence, which will help keep emotions from getting too overwhelming:

  1. Become aware of your feelings – Being able to recognize and name your feelings helps you process them in a more manageable way. Tracking your emotions daily can help with this awareness. Also, try to remember that emotions are a temporary state of mind. Don’t let them cause long-term damage by making impulsive decisions. Come back to the problem or situation when you’ve had a chance to cool down.
  2. Notice your thoughts – Thoughts become emotions and emotions become behaviors. If you find yourself often sad, mad or full of self-doubt, it could be because of the messages you’re telling yourself. We can learn to control the thoughts we allow ourselves to have by becoming aware of unproductive thoughts and challenging them with thoughts that lead us to feel better.
  3. Learn effective coping mechanisms and practice them proactively – Don’t be afraid to reach out and talk to people who manage emotions well and notice how they handle their emotions. Learn ways to calm yourself. Be aware of your caffeine intake and try to engage in healthy behaviors. Often, the work we do when we’re not stressed will help when those stressful situations come up.
  4. Learn empathy – Learning how to put ourselves in others’ shoes can help us be more patient and kind when situations arise. We can get caught up in self-pity or self-righteousness, which can fuel the gap between us and others. Try asking yourself if your actions and words could’ve hurt someone else. Also, practice doing random acts of kindness! Not only can that make someone else smile, it changes the way that you feel about yourself.
  5. Work on active listening – Practice using “I” statements when you’re in an emotional conversation. Work on listening to what you’re being told. Instead of reacting immediately, reflect on what you hear being said. Leave spaces in the conversation for you to collect yourself.

If you’d like to learn more about these strategies or talk with someone who’s made it through early recovery to the other side, please reach out. We’re here to help without judgment.

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Source: “Emotional Intelligence: Why it can Matter More Than IQ” by Daniel Goleman