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Substance Abuse & the Emotions

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Emotional Regulation After Substance Abuse Treatment

Emotional regulation refers to how people react to situations that are emotionally stimulating. Sometimes our emotions seem to take control over our actions. Emotional regulation refers to different techniques that are employed, consciously and subconsciously, to keep those emotions in check.

When a person can’t properly emotionally regulate, it is likely that he or she will resort to certain techniques that are less adaptive or healthy.

Substance abuse is a common reaction to emotional stimulation when an individual is ill-equipped to regulate those emotions.

There are four specific abilities related to emotional regulation: awareness of emotions, identifying and categorizing emotions, interpreting emotions and their physiological effects, as wells as accepting and enduring negative emotions.

Emotional regulation is something humans start developing at infancy and our practice of it continues to evolve throughout our entire life.

There are many reasons for why some may struggle with this more than others. Childhood trauma or neglect can affect a person’s ability to emotionally regulate, as well as particularly high levels of stress.

When individuals start abusing substances at a young age, they often have stunted emotional maturity. Instead of cultivating healthy regulation techniques during a critical time for development—like early adolescence— they may turn to substances instead.

Why Does the Emotional Regulation Process Influence Substance Abuse

The process of emotional regulation always begins with a situation that is emotionally stimulating; it could be a situation that is stressful, frustrating, exciting, and so on. When the situation occurs, an individual must pay attention to the situation and the feeling that it causes.

At this point, the situation may be evaluated and reflected on. An individual will interpret the feeling that the situation is causing, considering why this feeling was triggered. This stage in the process is important and has to do with a complex system of categorization.

Many people, with addictions and otherwise, struggle with this part of the emotional regulation process. It is common for people to improperly categorize situations and emotions, interpreting certain situations inaccurately. This may be due to cognitive dissonance, past trauma, hyper sensitivity, insecurity, addiction itself and the list goes on.

The final stage of this process is when a change occurs in a person’s response systems. This may be a behavioral, physiological, or experiential change. For example, someone may feel overstimulated with excitement, loud noise and lots of people around. The initial physiological response is increased heart rate and anxiety, but after emotionally regulating, the heart rate may slow as the person relaxes.

Emotional Regulation After Substance Abuse Treatment

People attempt to regulate emotions in many ways, some more healthy than others. There are four main themes to these techniques, which engage different parts of the regulation process: decisions and actions about certain situations, the attention given to situations, cognitive changes to do with situations, and attempts to directly influence emotional response.

Early Stage Regulation

Often, people try to control their emotional states by controlling situations and deciding whether to engage in a situation or not. For example, someone may decide to avoid something altogether because it generates anxiety. Another technique is to change an aspect of a situation to your favor. You might stand on the outskirts of a concert, for example, if large crowds make you anxious.

Techniques that have to do with attention are often less adaptive ways to emotionally regulate, though some work well. Distraction, for example is a positive technique that works well.

Suppressing emotionally triggering thoughts, though, may be a less healthy way to regulate. While suppression works well in certain instances, it may cause unwanted thoughts to occur more often and at unexpected times.

Late Stage Regulation

Cognitive change is a very healthy way to cope with emotions. This is when a person changes his or her emotional categorization of a situation. A woman who has been sexually abused, for example, might become irrationally upset during one on one interactions with men. Instead of continuing to categorize these instances as dangerous, which is inaccurate, this person might work to remind herself that there is no danger.

This technique is difficult to accomplish on your own, as most people are not aware of things like this. Of course, no one categorizes things incorrectly on purpose—it happens unconsciously most of the time. Therapists and counselors know how to identify these and help you to identify them so that you can begin to change.

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Emotional Regulation in Recovery: Manage Stress & Improve Communication

In rehab, individuals work to develop healthy emotional regulation techniques. These programs are holistically designed to improve physical and mental health while increasing self-awareness of unhealthy thought and behavioral patterns. Through cognitive behavioral therapy and other therapeutic methods, professionals can help you create cognitive change. Most people struggle to identify and be aware of negative thought patterns and categorization inconsistencies, but a therapist will help with this process during individual sessions.

Educational group sessions in rehab help to raise individual awareness about certain thoughts and behaviors that can perpetuate addiction and unhealthy emotional regulation. Through these sessions, patients learn about basic coping skills, such as selection of situation— staying away from triggers. Rehab also includes an aspect of physical wellness, with exercise and health regiments that must be upheld. Exercising can be a wonderful, healthy way to regulate emotions. It is good for your body, and it is also good for your mind—releasing endorphins that make you feel good. People who suffer from addiction are often individuals who, for one reason or another, don’t have very strong emotional regulation skills. Lack of emotional regulation makes us vulnerable to negative behaviors, but treatment can help with this.

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Etiadpajohi.ir. (2014). The Effectiveness of Teaching Emotional Regulation Based on Gross’s Model in Reducing Impulsivity in Drug-Dependent People. [online] Available at: http://etiadpajohi.ir/article-1-648-en.pdf [Accessed 21 Feb. 2019].

Choopan, H., Kalantarkousheh, S. M., Aazami, Y., Doostian, Y., Farhoudian, A., & Massah, O. (2016). Effectiveness of Emotion Regulation Training on the Reduction of Craving in Drug Abusers. Addiction & health, 8(2), 68-75.

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