As experts learn more and more about the brain, one of the lessons they’ve learned is that children who experience trauma develop the inability to calm themselves. They end up with higher levels of cortisol and as a result walk through life in a constant state of stress. And it is frequently these children, who never learn the important skill of regulating their emotions, who grow up to use substances as a means of calming down. They end up using drugs or alcohol as a means to escape feelings that may appear to be overwhelming and intense.
Throughout an addiction, a person may continue to use drugs or alcohol every time they feel anger, frustration, loss, shame, or fear. They may slowly develop the habit of turning to substances whenever these feelings become too much to face. And this habitual dependence upon a substance to feel better encourages the addiction.
For this reason, in addiction treatment, it’s important to address two matters:
- Heal any unresolved issues that may be the cause of overwhelming emotions – perhaps through psychotherapy or other means.
- Learn how to calm down without drugs or alcohol when intense feelings arise.
If you’re in recovery or addiction treatment, you may have already heard of the importance of learning new coping skills. If you’re the type of person who gets upset quickly and stays upset, you may want to learn tools that help you calm down. Another lesson that brain experts have learned is that there are different parts of the brain responsible for different tasks. When a person is in a state of stress or emotional overwhelm (especially someone who has trauma in their history), that person will have a harder time accessing their prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that is responsible for logical and rational thinking.
Accessing this part of the brain is important especially when in a crisis situation. However, to do so, a person needs to calm down first and have the ability to calm themselves. When a person is emotionally dysregulated (or upset), they will have a hard time thinking through what’s necessary to face the stressful situation in a responsible and healthy way. Imagine having a hard day at work and then you get into a small car accident. The accident might immediately create strong feelings of anxiety, fear, and tension. As a result, you decide to drive away from the scene of the accident. Then, later, feelings of guilt, anger, and frustration might begin to create cravings in you to drink or use drugs.
However, if at the scene of the accident you began using coping tools (such as breathing exercises, coaching yourself that it will be okay, etc.) you begin to calm down. And once you’re more relaxed, you realize that you have insurance and that they will pay for the damages. You realize that you’re not the one at fault and that everything will be fine, just as you were saying to yourself.
Having tools to calm down when you’re emotionally upset allows you to respond versus react to life. And this in turn can keep you healthy and happy in addiction treatment and recovery.
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