What to do when the thought of living drug-free is terrifying.

How do you learn to deal with emotions, with living life again sober when you can’t even cope with living? I’m only 24 years old and I’ve been addicted to one drug or another for the past 10 years and I’m so tired. I can’t do it anymore but I’m terrified of living drug-free because I won’t be able to shut my emotions off.

Mark Schenker: Your desire to “shut [your] emotions off” is understandable, but impossible in the human condition. Learning to deal with one’s emotions (especially unpleasant ones) is a dilemma faced by everyone on Planet Earth, and critical to early recovery. Healthy coping skills are hijacked in the course of addiction, and, along with negative reinforcement of substance use (e.g., removal of negative emotional states), addictive behavior becomes “second nature” over time. In the initial stage of recovery, the chief task is to remain sober to allow time to develop alternative responses to emotional stress.

As Jerome Frank pointed out long ago, developing hope is one of the core factors in effective change processes.

One of the keys to this task is interpersonal support. This can be achieved by participating in AA, other recovery programs, a spiritual community or in a relationship with a therapist. As hard as it is for some people to accept, developing a sober support system has been shown to be central to achieving and maintaining recovery.

There are numerous specific strategies for coping with the emotional rollercoaster. Awareness of the impact of post-acute withdrawal symptoms can help normalize this difficult period. Sharing your feelings with others and having them validated is a part of this process. Having concrete coping strategies for stress (imagery, mindfulness, distraction, etc.) are keys to affective stability and relapse prevention. Cognitive and behavioral therapies can help you develop a healthy relationship with your feelings—rather than “shutting off” feelings, it is essential to learn to “tolerate” them, long enough to survive them. Developing positive activities (which often pale compared to the reward aspects of substance abuse) to replace addictive behaviors. In the long run, having a healthy lifestyle is more important than fear of relapse (which can be a potent motivator in the short run).

As Jerome Frank pointed out long ago, developing hope is one of the core factors in effective change processes. The most important message is that recovery is possible.

Mark Schenker, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist with over 30 years experience, primarily in the field of addictive disorders. Full bio.

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