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  • Kevin Patton

Drugs, Alcohol and Emotions

Updated: Sep 17, 2019

Can you remember a time when you were going through a difficult emotion and you decided to use drugs or have a drink in order to feel better or stop feeling so bad?

What do you notice about the connection between your thoughts and feelings, and your decision to use?

Sometimes, when we feel emotional, we think that drink and drugs can make us forget what we are feeling or that we think they will help us cope with them.

Generally, emotions tend to come in two waves when we bring drink and drugs into the mix. The “Clean” emotions we feel in response to what’s happening – our warning signals that something isn’t going right.

The trouble is, drinking and using drugs can amplify and distort our emotions, creating situations that add further problems i.e. feeling angry – drink or use – end up in a fight.

When we drink and use drugs, it affects part of the brain called the limbic system. Emotions can be amplified, we can suffer from mood swings, misunderstand situations or intentions and end up saying things that we regret or feel bad about in the morning… Then because we are upset we think it’s a good idea to take something to make us feel better… Repeat, repeat.

Sometimes people can get into a repeated pattern where negative emotions form the reasons for drinking or taking drugs and then the thing we do creates the situations that we feel negative about.

This can end up spiralling out of control and become a spiral that contributes to people losing their jobs, family and friends. This increases our feelings of loneliness, depression, anxiety, anger and low self-worth.

In previous blogs, we’ve identified things we do that move us away from the person we want to be and the life we want to live and have us end up being swamped by the wave of emotion. We call these things FEAR

F = Fusion (stuff your mind tells you that gets in the way when you get caught up in it)

E = Excessive goals (your goal is too big, or you lack the skills, time, money, health, or other resources)

A = Avoidance of discomfort (unwillingness to make room for the discomfort this challenge brings)

R = Remoteness from values (losing touch with - or forgetting - what is important or meaningful about this)

Your mind is almost always full of thoughts.

Thoughts are sentences we say to ourselves.

Thoughts can also be images or pictures in your mind.

You may not always be aware of what you are thinking, but there are almost always thoughts running through your mind.

You can’t stop your thoughts and feelings – and, when you can, it's only for a short time and it comes with a heavy cost!

The real trick isn't to waste all that time trying to stop the waves - it's to start surfing!

Surfing is about starting to do some positive things that will move us forward, riding the wave, instead of being swamped by it.

The antidote to F.E.A.R. is D.A.R.E.

D = Defusion

A = Acceptance of discomfort

R = Realistic goals

E = Embracing values


Name the Story

When we experience really strong emotions, we can get caught up in old patterns of unhelpful and unworkable coping strategies such as using substances, self-harming or unhealthy eating habits.

Emotions, thoughts and what we do (or feel the urge to do) are all linked and become vicious cycles. Changing one part of the cycle will help improve the situation and work as a positive move.

If we can identify and name the emotion we are feeling, and the story we’re telling ourselves to keep it going, we can begin to understand why we react the way we do – in our thoughts, our physical reactions and behaviours. Then we are in a better place to stop the cycle or break out of it. We can learn to re-focus on what will move us towards the person we want to be living the life we want to live.

So, next time you feel an emotion, name it and the story behind it, then decide what to do first, before acting on automatic pilot.

Thank your Mind

Before take-off, pilots have to file a Flight Plan with Air Traffic Control explaining what they are going to. For example, Take off will be at 13:00. I will climb to 13,000 feet on a bearing of 42 degrees at a speed of 300 mph. I will maintain that heading for 7 minutes, then climb to 15,000 feet on a bearing of 50 degrees at a speed of 400 mph, and so on. That way, other planes know to stay out of that bit of sky. Thing is, 90% of the time, the plane isn’t on the flight plan. It might be off by 50 feet, or off course by a degree or two, but – most of the time – it still gets to its destination, why is that? (The pilot makes course corrections along the way).

The Chinese word for ―Crisis‖ (wēijī) is comprised of two ideograms, one for ―”danger” and one for ―”opportunity”. The core concept, here, is that negative emotions are an alarm call providing us with the opportunity to get back on the right course.

Thank your mind for the alarm call.

Leaves on the Stream

Imagine your thoughts and feelings are like leaves on a stream, carried along by the current. Just notice them, ‘Here’s reason-giving’, ‘here’s judging’, "here's anger", name the feeling, acknowledge it, and let it go .


Name the feeling, observe it like a curious scientist, rate it on a scale of 1 to 10, commit to allowing it, breathe into it, make room for it, give it a shape and colour.

Realistic goal-setting:

If you lack skills, set new goals around learning them; if your goal is too big, break it down into small chunks; if you lack resources, brainstorm how you can get them; if you lack time, what are you willing to give up in order to make time?; if the goal is truly impossible, e.g. due to health or financial issues, or external barriers over which you have no direct influence, then set a different one.

Embracing values:

Connect with what matters to you about this goal. Is it truly meaningful? Is it aligned with your values? Is it truly important? Is it moving your life forward in the direction you wish to go?

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