Surviving a Crisis: When the Wish to Use Feels Overwhelming

peaceful women sitting in a storm keeping calm when overwhelmed

When you’re in recovery from substance abuse, there will be moments when the urge to use or drink feels absolutely overwhelming. These moments can be incredibly hard to get through, and it’s easy to feel like you’re fighting a losing battle. But remember, you’re not alone. There are many of us in recovery who face these challenges, and there are real world, effective strategies to help you get through them.

Hopefully, right now, today, you are in a good place or at least good enough to make a plan in case things go south.

If you are not ok right now, try this:

  1. Try to find a place where you feel safe and where you can take some moments for your self
  2. Feel yourself breathing. Feel you belly swell and shrink, or your ribs rise and fall
  3. Feel your feet on the ground or your legs touching what you are sitting on
  4. Begin to let your exhale be longer than your inhale
  5. If it is safe to do so, let your eyes gaze softly at a fixed spot on the ground or below the horizon
  6. Repeat “This feeling is temporary, it will pass soon” either silently or spoken softly
  7. Think about your next step: call a friend, go for a walk, splash the coldest water you can find on your face, pet a dog or cat, eat some chocolate… whatever you choose, try to stay in the moment and not dwell on what has happened or what might come

How yoga can help

Yoga has a remarkable ability to build our sense of interoception, the ability to feel what is happening inside our body. As you practice yoga, frequently ask yourself “How is it now?”. Notice what you feel in your body, maybe in your quadriceps or shoulders, maybe in your belly or feel your heart beat in under your hand. Over time you will become more and more sensitive to internal sensations, which will spill over into your everyday life.

How is interoception helpful? We learn that when we are getting angry there are certain feelings inside that come up before the anger flares. We learn to sense a growing shadow of depression before we are overwhelmed by it. We learn to trust our instincts of how to best care for ourselves.

Guy meditating with cat in his lap and headphones on

Understanding Your Emotional State

First, let’s honestly acknowledge what you might be feeling. When a crisis hits, emotions can run high. You might feel:

  • Overwhelmed: Everything seems too much to handle, and you don’t know where to start.
  • Hopeless: It feels like nothing will ever get better, and you’re stuck in a dark place.
  • Angry: You might be mad at yourself, others, or the situation you’re in.
  • Scared: The fear of slipping back into old habits can be paralyzing.

These feelings are valid and normal, everybody feels them at certain times. Recognizing them is the first step towards managing them.

Becoming aware of our emotional state means recognizing and understanding our feelings as they arise. It’s about tuning into the subtle cues our body and mind give us, such as changes in our breathing, heart rate, or even our thoughts. This awareness allows us to identify emotions like anger, sadness, joy, or anxiety without being overwhelmed by them. By observing our emotions, we can understand their root causes and respond to them in a healthy, constructive manner. This mindfulness is crucial for maintaining mental well-being and can help us navigate life’s challenges more effectively.

To become more aware of your emotional state, start by practicing mindfulness meditation. Spend a few minutes each day sitting quietly and focusing on your breath. As thoughts and emotions arise, acknowledge them without judgment and gently bring your attention back to your breathing. Journaling is another helpful technique; write down your feelings and any triggers you notice throughout the day. This can help you identify patterns and gain insight into your emotional responses. Additionally, try to check in with yourself regularly, asking, “How am I feeling right now?” By making these practices a habit, you’ll develop a deeper understanding of your emotions and learn to manage them more effectively.

Breathing Practices to Calm Your Mind

When emotions are intense, your breathing can become shallow and rapid. This can make you feel even more anxious. Here are some simple breathing exercises to help calm your mind:

1. Deep Belly Breathing

  • How to do it: Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. Place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Take a deep breath in through your nose, allowing your belly to rise as you fill your lungs. Exhale slowly through your mouth, letting your belly fall.
  • Benefits: This exercise helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes relaxation and reduces stress.

2. 4-7-8 Breathing

  • How to do it: Inhale quietly through your nose for a count of 4. Hold your breath for a count of 7. Exhale completely through your mouth for a count of 8. Repeat this cycle three to four times.
  • Benefits: This technique can help you feel more grounded and calm, making it easier to manage strong emotions.

3. Box Breathing

  • How to do it: Inhale through your nose for a count of 4. Hold your breath for a count of 4. Exhale through your mouth for a count of 4. Hold your breath again for a count of 4. Repeat the cycle.
  • Benefits: Box breathing can help you regain control over your breath and reduce anxiety.

Easy Movement Practices to Release Tension

Physical activity can be a great way to release built-up tension and stress. You don’t need to do anything strenuous; simple movements can make a big difference.

1. Gentle Yoga Stretches

  • Cat-Cow Stretch: Get on your hands and knees. Inhale as you arch your back (cow pose), then exhale as you round your spine (cat pose). Repeat several times.
  • Child’s Pose: Kneel on the floor, sit back on your heels, and stretch your arms forward, lowering your forehead to the ground. Hold this pose for a few breaths.
  • Try this: 10 minute simple yoga sequence

2. Walking

  • How to do it: Go for a walk outside, if possible. Pay close attention to the sights, sounds, and smells around you. Let yourself be present in the moment.
  • Benefits: Walking can help clear your mind and improve your mood.

3. Stretching

  • Neck Stretch: Gently tilt your head to one side, bringing your ear towards your shoulder. Feel your inhale going into the long side of your neck and the exhale releasing that muscle. Keep this up for a few breaths, then switch sides.
  • Shoulder Rolls: Roll your shoulders forward and backward a few times to release tension.

Realizing That Not Using is the Best Choice

When the urge to use or drink is strong, it can be hard to remember why you chose recovery in the first place. Here are some strategies to help you stay on track:

1. Remind Yourself of Your Reasons

  • Write It Down: List the reasons why you chose to stop using or drinking. Keep this list somewhere you can easily access it during tough times.
  • Visualize Your Goals: Imagine the positive outcomes of staying sober. Visualize the life you want to create for yourself.

2. Reach Out for Support

  • Call a Friend or Sponsor: Talking to someone who understands can provide comfort and perspective.
  • Join a Support Group: Whether in person or online, support groups can offer encouragement and a sense of community.

3. Engage in a Healthy Distraction

  • Find a Hobby: Engage in an activity you enjoy, whether it’s reading, painting, or gardening.
  • Practice Mindfulness: Focus on the present moment without judgment. This can help you detach from the urge to use or drink.

This Difficult Moment Will Pass

It’s important to remember that feelings and urges are temporary. They come and go like waves. Here are some tips to help you ride out the storm:

1. Set a Timer

When the urge feels overwhelming, set a timer for 10 minutes. Tell yourself you won’t act on the urge until the timer goes off. Often, the urge will pass or lessen in intensity by then.

2. Create a Safe Space

Find a place where you feel safe and comfortable. This could be a quiet room, a cozy corner, in a car, or even a spot in nature. Spend some time there until you feel more grounded.

3. Use Affirmations

Repeat positive affirmations to yourself. For example:

  • “I am capable of making my life better.”
  • “This feeling will pass, just like so many have in the past.”
  • “I choose health and happiness.”

Summing it up

Getting through a crisis moment when you feel like using or drinking is challenging, and it is possible. By acknowledging your emotions, practicing calming techniques, engaging in gentle movement, and reminding yourself of the benefits of sobriety, you can navigate through these tough moments. Remember, each time you overcome an urge, you’re building strength and resilience. You’re not alone in this journey, and with each step, you’re moving closer to a healthier, happier life.

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