All addicts have difficulty with managing moods and impulsivity. They act on their urges without stopping to think through the consequences. The problems that ensue lead to remorse and shame, which then overwhelm then and give them more reasons to abuse their drug or process of choice. Their reliance on something outside of themselves to function keeps them from developing frustration tolerance — a key trait needed to mature into a responsible adult. The inability to manage frustration is one reason adult addicts often “look” and act much younger than they are.
Addicts must learn to tolerate difficult feelings and circumstances. They believe that they can’t do this because they don’t have a track record of doing so. As with any skill, frustration tolerance takes practice and discipline. Even small victories — making a Program call; taking a 5-minute mindfulness breakrecovrecov — can create a “history” that addicts can reference to prove to themselves that their feelings don’t have to run their lives.
The number one thing addicts must do is learn to pause before acting. Unless there’s a true crisis, most situations don’t require an immediate response. Pausing and reflecting when one is triggered gives addicts time to think through the consequences of their actions and make a mindful choice instead of being derailed by their emotions.
Here are five steps to help you pause instead of resorting to your drug of choice:
When you wake up in the morning, take a moment to ask yourself where you are emotionally and physically. Notice the sensations in your body. Does anything hurt or are you relaxed? Take stock of your thoughts and feelings. Are you worried or excited about the day ahead? Because addicts are used to reacting, they are rarely in touch with their bodies and emotions. Using this technique at least once a day and preferably throughout the day will help you become aware of your mood state so you can take positive action instead of reacting.
You’ve checked in with yourself and you notice that your stomach is clenched and you’re ruminating about the argument you had last week with a family member. Observe what’s going on in your mind and body without judgment, since self-criticism will only make you feel worse. Don’t try to change how you feel and think. Reacting to what’s true for you will take you out of the moment and often spark a fight or flight response. Just continue to observe your thoughts and feelings using a nonjudgmental stance. You don’t always need to respond to everything you’re thinking and feeling and often you will find that not doing anything (especially if anger is fueling you) is the best choice.
Thinking Through the Consequences
Now that you’re aware of what’s going on with you without fighting it, ask yourself what the likely consequences of your actions will be. How will firing off an angry e-mail to your mother benefit you? Will lecturing your son bring more peace into the house? Knee-jerk responses rarely do anything positive and, in fact, often create more problems.
Use Coping Skills
You’ve practiced self-awareness, nonjudgment, non-reactivity, but still feel upset. This is the time to utilize your coping skills. Make a program call. Go to a meeting. Journal. Take a walk. Take a five-minute meditation break. Breathe. Using coping skills will help you manage your anxiety so that you can make a positive choice — or notice that what felt urgent is really not that important.
Following these steps will help you learn to pause with intention so you can tolerate frustration and make wise choices. With practice, you’ll be able to pause for longer periods of time, use coping skills instead of acting out, and develop confidence that you can manage your emotions instead of resorting to dysfunctional behavior.
By Virginia Gilbert, MFT
Follow Virginia on Twitter at @VGilbertMFT