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Impulse Control and New Coping Skills in Addiction Recovery

September 29, 2014 Kira Lesley

Learning impulse control and new coping skills is challenging, and being in addiction recovery makes it necessary. Where do you start learning these things?

Early in recovery, a young woman who had gotten sober several years before me gave me some good advice. She said that when I felt like drinking, I should make a list of possible actions I could pursue and rank them in order from least destructive to most destructive. Actions such as praying or taking a bath would probably rank high on the list, while drinking and suicide would come in last. In the middle, I might list such things as shirking responsibilities to watch TV all day or going on a reasonable shopping spree. (I should mention, I have not struggled with shopping addiction.) When I felt the urge to drink or use, I was to start at the top of the list and work my way down.

Practicing Impulse Control in Recovery

Impulse control is a huge part of addiction recovery, especially at the beginning. We are accustomed to navigating life with our addiction as our guide. When an addict uses wine to celebrate, marijuana to relax after work, amphetamines to study or pornography to escape, he or she becomes accustomed to using these things as the first line of defense. It becomes very difficult to break these habits. After not having touched a drop for seven years, when a glass of liquor is in front of me, my first impulse is still to grab it and toss it back before someone takes it away from me.

Thankfully, another part of my brain has countered this impulse many times. Just because the thought flashes through my head, it does not mean I have to act on it. Likewise, experiencing a negative emotion or feeling overwhelmed (which was one of my biggest triggers while drinking) does not require me to act. One of the central components of sobriety is learning new coping skills for life's challenges, and sometimes allowing yourself to experience negative emotions.

Accepting Unpleasant Feelings

Some people might recognize this "sitting with" negative emotions as part of dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). It's something I've learned more from experience than formal practice with a mental health professional, but either way, it's a valuable lesson. We all will face disappointments in life, we will fight with our loved ones and sometimes we will feel sad or anxious for seemingly no reason at all. As my mother says, "some days you just feel a little down." In recovery, when we have those days, we must practice acceptance toward how we're feeling and try to cope in the healthiest ways possible. Whatever we used to feel different before can no longer be our first resort when confronted with a difficult circumstance.

When I fight with a loved one, I usually feel completely miserable. My mind races, searching for ways I can make the situation better. In the past, that might have meant drinking or it might have meant yelling mean things to try to provoke a response. As a person in recovery today, I do not escape through alcohol and try my best not to be cruel or hurt others. Saying hurtful things is, for me, probably not as catastrophic as drinking, but it's certainly not ideal and it makes me feel icky.

Unfortunately, sometimes I still hurt people I love, and when I do, I have to accept that I made a mistake and that they are upset. I still get urges to engage in unhealthy behaviors and utilize less than desirable coping mechanisms -- and I still do these things. I am human, after all. Thankfully, however, altering my reality through drugs and alcohol is no longer my default reaction.

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Author: Kira Lesley

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