5 Essential Tips to Navigating Your Feelings in Early Sobriety
I once heard that the best part about sobriety is that you get to feel your feelings again. However, the worst part of sobriety is that you get to feel your feelings again. Maybe you can relate?
I remember being 20 days sober and just feeling consumed with anxiety. My mind was racing. I felt painfully alone trapped in a sea of swirling thoughts. I didn't know how to self-soothe without a drink.
I drank for same reason you drank. I liked the effect. I didn’t want to feel the feelings that come with life: anxiety, sadness, grief, and loss and alcohol provided me a way out. If I had a bad day at work or was feeling lonely, a glass of wine (or should I say a bottle of wine) allowed me to escape just for a bit. Being an empath, I feel everything so deeply. There was a part of me that liked being numb. It provided a momentary reprieve from all my feelings. While I didn't drink every night, there was some part of me that felt I needed alcohol to function and couldn't imagine my life without it.
As the saying goes it works until it doesn’t. Self-medicating my feelings did work for a long time. However, slowly but surely I started to unravel. I could no longer control how much I drank or my feelings for that matter. Sometimes I was fine. I could go out and have only one or two drinks. But more often than not, one would turn into two and two into three and I’d wake up feeling ashamed, full of regret, and consumed with anxiety. I no longer trusted myself. The alcohol that had once helped me was now making things so much worse.
In twelve step rooms, they talk about hitting rock bottom. I didn’t hit an obvious rock bottom. But I didn’t need to. There was this inner knowing that I couldn't escape. If I kept drinking the way I was, it would only get worse. It was just a matter of time. I felt like I had this big secret I needed to hide. When I finally stopped drinking, for the first time in a long time, I felt a sense of relief. I was scared yet hopeful about my future.
Early sobriety is hard many reasons. The hardest being when we stop drinking we no longer have our escape route. We no longer have a way to buffer our emotions. We have no other option, but to learn how to navigate all the feelings we have been numbing for years.
If you are struggling to navigate your feelings, please be kind to yourself and trust that you are right where you are supposed to be. As a friend of my likes to say, you aren't bad at this. You are a beginner! Early sobriety is an emotional rollercoaster, not just for you, but for everyone. Learning how to navigate feelings takes time, practice, and a lot of self-love. Just focus on not drinking and trust that in time you will learn how to navigate your feelings.
Here are 5 tips to managing your feelings in early sobriety:
1. Stay in today. They say take it one day at a time for a reason. When we take on too much, we get anxious, tired, and overwhelmed which can lead to picking up a drink. You don't need to get a new job, start a new diet, and repair all of your relationships today. You only have the emotional bandwith to meet the problems of today. You will figure everything else out in time. I promise! Just focus on the actions you are taking today to support your sobriety and emotional well-being.
2. Exercise. When we drink heavily for long periods of time, we become depleted in neurotransmitters that help us feel good – i.e. dopamine. This is often why when we stop drinking we often feel worse before we feel better. Alcohol is a depressant. It takes time for our natural dopamine stores to replenish. Exercise naturally increases dopamine and other feel-good hormones, restoring your neurotransmitters, leaving you feeling less anxious and depressed. That is why it is called runner's high! 3. Connection. I once read that the opposite of addiction is connection. I believe this to be true! If we sit with our heavy feelings for too long, we often become consumed by them which makes a drink sound really tempting. We need to a safe space to share our feelings with other people who get it so that we can feel seen and heard, supported, and encouraged in our journey. It is also a great way to get relief! There are so many free mutual support groups: twelve step, Dharma Recovery, SMART recovery, and SHE RECOVERS to name a few. Find what works for you! There are many Zoom options as well.
4. Self-care. Self-care seems to be a trending topic today and yet we often miss the mark. Self-care means learning how to truly care for yourself and that includes taking care of your feelings. When you feel a strong emotion, it can be helpful to ask "What am I feeling?" and to name it aloud. And then ask "What do I need in this moment?" Some clients have expressed the latter question is too difficult in early sobriety. Alternative questions include "How can I take care of myself right now? How can I be kind to myself?" Feelings let us know what is going on inside of us and what we need. If you practice checking in with yourself regularly, you will become better able to navigate your feelings without reaching for a drink.
5. Get support from a professional who works with individuals in recovery. When I stopped drinking, I didn't know how to navigate my feelings without reaching for a drink. I didn't want to white knuckle my way through early sobriety or to get a few days sober to only to relapse. I needed support, accountability, and guidance from a trained professional who could help me. Early sobriety is so hard, but having the right support can make it so much easier. Feelings aren't so scary when you have someone supporting you and guiding you through them. Finding the right support for yourself is an act of self-love. It is an investment you are making in your mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. You are so worth it!