Emotional Regulation and Relapse Prevention

What is emotional regulation?

Emotional regulation and Distress tolerance are terms that I find myself referring to and using often in practice. Sometimes I have a hard time pinning these terms down in my own definitions, even though each can be viewed as relatively self explanatory.

After all, emotional regulation can be understood as ones ability to regulate emotion, while distress tolerance is somewhat interchangeable in this sense as our ability to tolerate distress, or uncomfortable situations and feelings.

While it may seem obvious, I still don’t think that we give these words enough meaning and understanding.

Regardless of whether or not an individual considers themselves to be “emotional”, every piece of sensory information that we input is filtered by our own emotional interpretations. These filters have been created based on our previous appraisals of the environment and people around us.

Just because the word “emotion” is involved in this concept, does not mean that these emotions are of intense nature. It seems as though we relate the concept of emotion only to those obvious emotions that come to mind, like being sad or angry. When really, all of our thoughts are paired with emotions.

Therefore, I think we often underestimate the relevance of our emotions and ability to emotionally regulate or tolerate distress. In order to understand and regulate our emotions, as well as our triggers, we need to be mindful and observant of these sensitivity's. With that being said, it is helpful to keep tabs in regards to when they occur, or when they take on different forms of intensity.

How do these terms connect to addiction and relapse?

While I want to continue, (and probably will in a future posts) about the specifics of emotional regulation and ways that can help, I began this post with the intention of relating these concepts to relapse prevention and addiction.

Through addictions counselling, as well as regular counselling, it can be understood that we are less able to regulate intense emotions and triggers when our basic needs are not being met.

If you have had issues with addictions, or worked in addictions, you may remember the acronym H.A.L.T, which stands for:

Hungry. Angry. Lonely. Tired.

Essentially, what H.A.L.T means is that if an individual’s needs are not being met in each of the above categories, than they are more likely to have a lower distress tolerance . This idea also elaborates that our ability to self regulate emotions is less effective when we are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. With that being said, this lack in tolerance to distress could lead to the use of negative coping skills as well as possible relapse and substance use.

Chemical dependency or addiction can take root across many different demographics and situations that each depend on the individual. No addiction issue is the same, and each individual has their own story. However, there is often a correlation between an individuals ability to cope with emotion in a healthy way, and substance use.

Regardless of each individual path that the substance use may take, in order to maintain sobriety, creating healthy ways of coping with emotions is essential in preventing relapse.

In order to be able to create alternative coping skills, I believe that it is important to firstly understand the ways in which we experience our emotions and triggers. If we are able to identify these emotions there is in turn, a better chance to be able to regulate and contemplate before going straight to negative coping skills and comforts (substances).

Understanding our emotions and processing them is no easy task. It is imperative to conceptualize that these are complexities that we have built over the course of our entire lives in order to protect ourselves.

Whether or not you are dealing with addiction, anger issues, anxiety or depression. The first step to be able to regulate your emotions is to firstly be to be mindful the ways and instances in which they occur.