Emotional ups and downs are a normal part of being human. One of the most moving things for me as an addictions therapist is to be with our clients as they move through the ups and downs of life without the chemical filter of drugs or alcohol. Clients are not used to tolerating, or “being with” their hard feelings. In addiction, substances are used to medicate the “downs,” and tend to create a cycle of more extreme ups and downs. In recovery, we learn skills to make the ups and downs less intense and healthy ways of tolerating and transforming negative emotions.
Sitting with someone who is feeling hopeless or worthless or angry-beyond-reproach is not easy. I can’t fix situations on their life or make the pain go away. What I can do is calmly “be with” them, help them identify how they feel, provide validation, and reframe negative or irrational thinking. I can also hold the bigger and brighter picture in mind as they are lost in a dark place.
When a client is in a down, I try to remember a few things: 1) that they are at risk for relapse, 2) that it’s difficult to imagine being out of a down when you are in one, 3) that the client is seeing everything through dark and murky glasses and that it’s hard for them to be positive about anything right now, 4) that it’s my job to hold the bigger picture of ups and downs in my mind, even if they are not able to themselves, 5) by being treated with acceptance and compassion when they are down, clients will learn to “be with” themselves and are eventually able to keep the bigger picture of their highest values in mind even when things do get hard.
When my clients are feeling good, we create a plan for the next down. We identify environmental, thought, and behavioral antecedents to feeling down emotionally. We make a concrete plan to prevent an emotional spiral and a concrete plan for what to do when things do get hard. Learning to surf on gentler emotional waves does not just apply to people in recovery. What are your “triggers” for getting down emotionally? What can you put in place to avoid spiraling too low? When you do feel low, what are some tried and true ways of finding yourself again?