Overcoming Emotional Pain in Alcoholism Recovery

Overcoming Emotional Pain in Alcoholism Recovery


One of the things that you can be fairly certain of in your journey through recovery is that you are going to have to deal with some amount of emotional pain.

If you look closely at your addiction or alcoholism, you can probably uncover the fact that a lot of your self medicating was, in fact, medicating emotional pain.

The longer you were addicted the more likely this is to be the case. Some people start out in addiction for various reasons–for example, maybe they start with painkillers due to a physical injury. So that person is not necessarily medicating emotional pain right off the bat, but eventually, given enough time, they will be medicating themselves due to physical dependence, and they will note that it definitely helps them to deal with their negative emotions.

The problem with drugs and alcohol is that we cannot help but notice that they do a great job at temporarily eliminating our unwanted and negative emotions. They “fix” things for us nearly instantly.

If you are upset or angry or scared, you can take a large amount of your drug of choice and those unwanted emotions are washed away completely, at least in the short run. If they come back later then you can simply medicate more.

So most of us in our addiction have gotten used to dealing with our emotional pain in this way. We simply medicate it out of existence, and we keep self medicating in order to run away from those unwanted emotions. Our goal is that we never have to deal with those unwanted feelings. We just keep running and running.

We get to recovery and we realize that this option has been taken off the table, we have decided that we are no longer going to self medicate using drugs and alcohol.

And while we may find the “pink cloud” for a while in early recovery, at some point the cloud has to burst. We all have ups and downs in life, and eventually we will go through some amount of emotional pain in our lives. This is just as true in recovery as it is during our addiction.

This means that every person who is in early recovery from alcoholism has to learn how to deal with emotional pain. They have to learn the tools that will allow them to overcome emotional pain without resorting to relapse.

Now in my experience there are at least 2 parts to this strategy. The first part is to eliminate as much source of emotional pain as you can as your first line of defense. In other words, if you can avoid having to deal with some of the pain in the first place then you will be much better off.

In my opinion we are not always so good at doing that by ourselves when we first get into recovery. The reason for this may be because we are not exactly superstars at making smart decisions when we first get clean and sober. A prime example of this would be the newly recovering alcoholic who falls into a new romantic relationship during the first few months of their recovery journey. This almost never ends well, which is why popular wisdom advises so heavily against it. Unless the relationship is magically “the one” then it will inevitably end at some point, and when it ends there will be a huge amount of emotional pain.

Everyone overestimates their ability to handle this emotional pain of a breakup, and they also underestimate how severe and devastating that pain will be. This is why so many people who engage in a new relationship in early recovery end up relapsing.

Having a sponsor or a therapist (or both) who can advise you in early recovery is one way to avoid some of the emotional pain that you might have otherwise encountered. You have to realize that you cannot really trust yourself to make decisions in early recovery, and therefore you need to “turn your will over” and let other people guide you and advise you. Letting go to this extent will allow you to build a healthier path in early recovery, one that is not fraught with landmines of emotional pain.

In other words, get out of your own way in early recovery by getting a therapist, getting a sponsor, and then doing exactly what they tell you to do. This is a very humbling experience, and we need that humility in order to succeed. If you try to do things your own way then you are likely going to invite a lot of emotional pain into your life.

So avoiding excessive amounts of emotional pain is one part of your game plan. What is the other?

The other part is in learning various coping mechanisms for the pain that you do encounter. And this part cannot be dismissed because, in spite of your best efforts, you are still going to have at least some emotional pain throughout your recovery journey. It is simply a part of life.

So you can get ideas and suggestions from your peers in AA meetings, from your sponsor, and from your therapist. You can get lots of different methods for how to overcome and deal with emotional pain. People will tell you various things to try, such as prayer, meditation, exercise, going to meetings, sharing with a friend, various forms of therapy, and so on.

My biggest suggestion to you would be that you start testing these suggestions out in your recovery and finding out what works best for you.

I was in a situation at one point during my recovery journey in which I was tested with a huge amount of emotional pain. I was quite devastated and I almost felt as if “I was beside myself” due to being overwhelmed with emotions. I was really quite scared.

At that point I went into a sort of survival mode and I did the only thing that I could do, which what I had trained to do. For me at the time, that meant physical exercise, and so I went outside and I started running. I ran a very long time and I when I got done running the pain had subsided to a level that I could now deal with. Of course I reached out to some supportive people in my life as well but the exercise is really what pulled me through the critical hour.

The important thing to note here is not that exercise works, because that is only the technique that worked for me. What works for you might be very different. But you need to train yourself and get into the habit of doing something, whether that is meditation, going to AA meetings, exercise, therapy, whatever it may be. You need to find the thing that works for you and then make it into a natural habit, so that when you find yourself in a highly emotional crisis state you will know how to react. Your reaction needs to be automatic, in the same way that I just automatically went running. If you have to think about it, if it is not part of your daily practice, then it might not come through in time to save you from a relapse.

So this is really about establishing a daily practice for yourself, one that allows you to heal and to be healthy emotionally on a day to day basis. Do the work now, in early recovery, to establish those habits and routines so that you will be strong when the time comes. By preparing yourself in advance for emotional turmoil you will live a stronger recovery and a happier life today. Good luck!