The Importance of Dealing with Emotions in Addiction Recovery

Jan 20, 2017 | Blog, Recovery, Youth Addiction Treatment

The ability to process your emotions is an essential component of recovery. But many young men who suffer from addiction have learned to evade their emotions, making it all the more difficult to recover from an addiction.

Dealing with Emotions in Addiction Recovery


  • Emotional escapism is dangerous.
  • Men are often speechless when it comes to their own emotions – this can detract from the success of recovery.

Many of us are taught from an early age that so-called ‘negative’ emotions like sadness and anger are inappropriate – especially for men. This leads many young men to suppress or even outright deny their emotional responses. But the truth is that suppressing your emotions is neither healthy nor advisable in the context of addiction recovery.

The impulse to avoid emotion can complicate the recovery process. This is because successful recovery often requires dealing with the emotional issues that led you to abuse drugs or alcohol in the first place. Without a strong dose of emotional honesty, you may genuinely want to free yourself from the grips of addiction, but find that you are ill-equipped to do so.

Beyond that, the recovery process is often an emotional one. Dramatic life changes can leave you feeling isolated and lonely. Meanwhile, withdrawal symptoms can physiologically affect the brain – and therefore your mental and emotional state. Many people in early recovery also feel a surge of emotions when coming to terms with their past actions and the effects that they have had on those they care about.

For some people, early recovery is an emotional rollercoaster. Learning to process and deal with those emotions is a critical step.  But as we will see in this post, it is one that many young men who struggle with addiction have difficulty mastering – if this sounds familiar to you, you are not alone.

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Why Men in Particular Have Difficulty Talking about Their Emotions

Renowned psychiatrist Ronald F Levant, EdD has studied this phenomenon extensively. One of Levant’s key findings is that men are statistically more likely than women to have difficulty verbally expressing their emotions. His scientific term for this phenomenon is ‘normative male alexithymia’ – which translates into common speech as ‘without words for emotions’. In other words, men are often speechless when it comes to how they feel.

We may have already understood this phenomenon anecdotally, but we now have a much stronger scientific basis to back it up. Breakthroughs in functional magnetic-resonance imaging (fMRI) have made it possible for researchers to gain a much more detailed perspective on how male and female brains differ when it comes to processing emotions. Combine this with the ongoing research of experts like Levant, and it is safe to say that we understand more about how the brain works than ever before.

One of the main problems with not having the words to describe your own emotions is that it makes you much less likely to acknowledge that you are struggling with any emotional issues to begin with. And even in the event that you do acknowledge the problem, seeking help can be terribly intimidating. After all, who would want to seek treatment when doing so means entering into a setting where you will have to try (and quite possibly fail) to explain how you are feeling?

Why Young Men Need to Learn to Express Themselves

When men struggle to express or even understand their emotions, they are much more likely to try and escape them. This can lead to a wide range of issues, such as:

  • Drug and alcohol abuse
  • Anger
  • Aggression
  • Thrill-seeking behaviour
  • Workaholism
  • Compulsive sex
  • Psychosomatic illnesses

And those are just a few potential problems that can arise. Not only can emotional avoidance lead to self-destructive patterns like substance abuse or compulsive behaviour, it can also be reinforced by the behaviours that it creates. This leads to a self-defeating cycle that can be very difficult for a young man with emotional insecurities to overcome.

Overcoming the Impulse to Escape Emotions

Emotional escapism is dangerous and unhealthy. In the context of recovery, someone who avoids feeling or dealing with negative emotions (such as anger, sadness or fear) may also find that they are unable to experience more pleasant emotions. In other words, numbing sadness usually means numbing happiness and joy, too.

The capacity to feel and appreciate joy is informed by our capacity for sadness as well. This does not mean that you have to suffer from major depression in order to enjoy ecstatic joy. But the capacity for joy and the capacity for sadness are inextricably joined. Silencing one means muting the other.

The problem here is that the ability to discover joy is crucial to a successful recovery. Beginning a new life that does not include the substance you have become dependent upon is difficult enough as it is. Factor in the role that substance played in stimulating the brain’s reward centre, and it becomes all the more important that new, more authentic sources of pleasure and happiness are developed.

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Learning to Process Emotions Can Lead to a Fuller Life in Recovery

When you are locked in the clutches of addiction, facing up to your emotions is uncomfortable – or even downright frightening. By the same token, constantly running from the way you feel can be exhausting. It is easy to feel like there is no way out.

Numbing your feelings with drugs or alcohol can make it easier to cope with day-to-day life. But this also means letting go of the chance to lead a happier, more fulfilling existence. Hurt, frustration and sadness are just as much a part of life and happiness. And the ability to process all of these emotions as they arise is essential.

At The Cabin Edge, we work with young men who are struggling with addiction. Our treatment programme is designed to help our clients find meaning and purpose in life. This involves one-to-one therapy, during which the addiction counsellor can help identify and address issues that require emotional processing. With our help, you can lead a fuller, more rewarding life in recovery.