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Anger and Sadness: Emotions that Can Upend Recovery (and Could Indicate a Mental Health Disorder)

Have you ever stopped to think about the ways in which your emotions affect your behavior? 

Often, especially given how full our schedules tend to be, we think about our actions as if they were completely separate from our emotions. We have a to-do list, and we work hard to check items off of that list in a timely and efficient manner. It can almost seem like a mechanical process: identify the next thing you have to do, do it, and repeat. And if a process is mechanical, it probably is not driven by emotion, right?

But human beings are not, in fact, mechanical devices that simply move from task to task. Instead, we are filled with emotions—and the emotion we are feeling at any given time has an impact on what we do and how we do it. 

That is true for each and every one of us, but for a person in recovery from a substance use disorder, the influence of emotion on behavior has high stakes. If not handled with care, a number of emotional states may make it more likely that you will turn back to drugs or alcohol as a way of coping with the way you are feeling. 

Let’s take a look at two such emotions—anger and sadness—and identify some strategies to help prevent them from undermining your recovery. Along the way, we will note some mental health disorders that may mimic these emotions, and which should be addressed if they arise.

All About Anger

We all experience anger from time to time—and often it is a wholly justified response to a situation in which we find ourselves. Maybe you are angry at a coworker or classmate who failed to complete their part of a shared assignment. Maybe you are angry as a result of a policy decision in your community with which you do not agree. Maybe you are angry that the neighbor’s party is still raging on at 3 a.m.

In those sorts of cases, there is often something proactive you can do—talk with your project partner about what is going on, get out the vote for candidates who share your policy preferences the next time the opportunity arises, knock on your neighbor’s door (probably during daylight hours) to let them know that their parties tend to disrupt your sleep and ask for some consideration.

But when you experience anger and are feeling as if there is no way to make things better, you have entered dangerous territory. The temptation to turn to drugs or alcohol to turn down the heat on your anger may be strong. Instead, you might try talking things through with a trusted friend to see if you can find a way through the anger to a more positive place.

We want to note here that persistent anger could be an anxiety disorder in disguise. If you feel angry all the time, and you are not sure why, it may be time to have a conversation with your doctor or a mental health professional.

Studying Sadness

Many of the things we have said about anger apply to sadness as well. We all feel it from time to time—and it is often wholly justified. Perhaps you have experienced disappointment at work or in your personal life. Perhaps someone close to you has passed away and you are grieving. Perhaps you are moving to a new community and are sad to be leaving longtime friends behind.

As with anger, there are productive ways to deal with sadness—use your disappointment as motivation to try a different approach next time. Reflect on the things you loved about the person you lost and try to develop those qualities in yourself. Keep in touch with your longtime friends while also making a commitment to make new friends in your new community.

But if you are feeling sad and can’t see an end to that sadness on the horizon, you put your sobriety in jeopardy. Sadness, like anger, could lead you back to drugs or alcohol. It would be far better to find a way to alleviate the sadness by spending time with a friend or doing something you truly enjoy. 

We will note here that persistent feelings of sadness (especially those without a readily identifiable cause) could be a sign of depression. If you suspect that might be the case, it is time to talk with your doctor or a mental health professional.

Regaining Your Sobriety Can Inspire Joy

We have been talking about a couple of emotions that most of us try to avoid when we can. But there are, of course, plenty of emotions most of us would be delighted to feel more often—including joy. At Wooded Glen Recovery Center in Indiana, we work hard to help each person we serve regain and maintain their sobriety (while also addressing any co-occurring mental health disorders that may be in play). When you get the help you need and reclaim your life from drugs or alcohol, we are confident you will experience joy as you think about the new path you can now travel in recovery.