For many people, substance use is a way of coping with stressors and painful emotions. Certain drugs can cause a person who is feeling low to experience a few moments of euphoria. Someone who is under stress to meet a deadline might use drugs to concentrate. An individual experiencing anxiety might use alcohol to slow down those worried thoughts.

It is never easy to sit with difficult emotions. This is why substance use can be tempting for many. Utilizing substances to regulate your emotions is a recipe for disaster. It can lead to emotional and physical dependence and make it more difficult to cope with those emotions without the crutch of substances. 

For those recovering from substance use disorder, finding healthier ways to manage emotions is necessary. Effectively managing stress is an essential safeguard against relapse and can help you thrive in recovery.

Control Your Breathing to Control Your Emotions

Breathing is an involuntary process that ensures we are receiving enough oxygen to function. In times of stress, it becomes more rapid to prepare us for fight or flight. When we become stressed or overwhelmed with negative emotions, our breathing responds accordingly. Intervening with your breathing during these times can help calm your body and your mind. 

One breathing exercise that can achieve this is box breathing. This simple strategy is used by the Navy Seals to keep calm and focused, and it can help you as well. By controlling your breathing, you are avoiding rapid and shallow breaths that alert your nervous system to danger. Box breathing is called this because it requires four steps of four-second intervals, just as a box has four sides. 

To utilize the box breathing strategy, progress through the following four steps:

  1. Breathe in for four seconds
  2. Hold that air in for four seconds
  3. Exhale over the course of four seconds
  4. Pause for four seconds before inhaling again

Using Your Body’s Physiology to Your Advantage

The mammalian dive reflex is a coping strategy that has a surprising origin and an even more surprising effect on emotional regulation. This reflex occurs when a mammal is suddenly submerged in cold water and forced to hold its breath. When this happens, your body goes into self-preservation mode because of the lack of oxygen. In order to protect itself from drowning and store oxygen, the body causes the heart and respiration rate to drop. 

This might sound like the type of thing you would want to avoid when you are experiencing intense emotions like anxiety or anger. The opposite is actually true. When you are in a highly emotional state, your mind is not the only thing activated. Your body is also reacting to whatever threat you are facing, whether it is a physical danger or a distressing thought. The rapid slowing of your breathing and heart rate will force your body out of that active state and into a lower energy state. This, in turn, helps you to feel calmer.

You do not need to jump into the ocean to trigger this calming response. It is as simple as filling a bowl with cold water, holding your breath, and briefly submerging your face. A similar effect can be achieved by taking a cold shower and turning to face the water. Hold your breath for as long as you feel comfortable, but do not push yourself too far. 

In general, rapid changes in temperature can be a welcome distraction during periods of intense emotion. You can try holding an ice cube, ice pack, bag of frozen vegetables, or even a frozen orange to draw your attention away from your thoughts and toward the physical sensation you are experiencing. 

Moving Your Muscles

Movement can be a powerful tool for feeling better. Negative emotions often leave us feeling “stuck” and without direction, and engaging in active activities can shake us out of that stagnation. Exercise comes in many different forms and can be adapted to meet your energy and ability level. For example, you can:

  • Take a walk around the block
  • Go for a run
  • Ride your bike
  • Go swimming
  • Lift weights
  • Do yoga or pilates
  • Attend a group fitness class
  • Dance to music
  • Follow a workout video

Another way you can help yourself by moving your body actually requires much less activity. Progressive muscle relaxation can help you feel calmer by tensing and then relaxing certain muscles. While sitting or lying down, move from your feet to your head, tensing each muscle group for a few seconds, then relaxing for a few seconds before moving to the next area.

Getting Support for Your Emotions

While there are many coping strategies that exist to help you during stressful and emotional times, you can’t always do it all on your own. This is especially true when you are grappling with addiction. Working with a mental health professional to address your emotions and work through them can give you insight and greater control over them.

Recovering from substance use disorder is a learning process. It is a time of discovering your needs and limits and how you can navigate daily life without relying on substances. Although it might take trial and error, developing a set of tools that help you live with challenging emotions will set you up for success while sober. Family-Centered Services is dedicated to helping you find and refine those tools. We offer a range of services that promote recovery, including individual and family therapy, a Family Recovery Program, sober accountability services, case management, and treatment placement consultation. Our comprehensive services are geared toward helping you and your family heal together. Call us at (509) 991-5822 to get started.