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We all have memories that bring us down, whether a bad breakup or a prolonged illness, especially for people who are moving into recovery from addiction or a mental health disorder. These memories—and the situations that gave rise to them—are often driving forces behind destructive patterns, responses and behaviors that block drug addicts from achieving balance and health. Thankfully, new research suggests that we can reshape how we emotionally process negative memories, because all it takes is following a few simple instructions and understanding a few recovery basics.
What Is Cognitive Reappraisal Science and How It Helps Recovering Addicts
The Cognitive Neuroscience Society reports encouraging findings for people with less-than-perfect pasts: the study they cite belongs to research that aims to understand cognitive reappraisal, or the process by which people either intensify or weaken their emotions in response to stimuli. Memories are powerful forms of such stimuli, so they occur in response to situations. In other words, people associate events or behaviors with certain situations or items, because the brain has linked the thoughts together.
Most addicts already know this fact intuitively due to their experience with cravings. If you remember a bad breakup, getting fired from a job or worse a traumatic event such as rape or instance of domestic violence, then these thoughts can trigger a flood of sadness, grief or anger. Reflexively, addicts will reach for a substance to numb their painful emotions, thereby perpetuating the addiction cycle. In contrast, people in recovery learn to face these problems head on, which ends up strengthening their minds, bodies, souls and sobriety in the process.
In the past, studies have looked into this issue with images or film clips as stimuli. These studies drew from personally relevant past experiences, which helped researchers understand how healthy individuals effectively regulate emotions associated with memories rooted in the past, otherwise known as autobiographical memories. Because it takes time for someone to recall an autobiographical memory, the researchers were able to investigate different points in time during which neural processes contribute to the emotional regulation of the memories. Researchers examined brain activity with an MRI scan during the following three phases:
- As participants viewed a reappraisal instruction
- As they searched for the memory
- As they elaborated on the details of the memory
Participants could choose which negative events to recall, which ranged from romantic break-ups and poor performance on an exam or paper to the loss of a pet or an illness. The reappraisal instruction was to increase, decrease or maintain emotions associated with the event. For instance, if the negative event were about a friend forgetting a participant’s birthday, then she might decrease the emotional reaction to that memory by focusing on the great time spent celebrating the birthday. To increase the emotional reaction to that event, the participant might focus how sad she felt upon realizing that the friend forgot.
In conclusion, the findings reveal that addicts have a potent source of power for regulating emotions right at their fingertips—if they change the way they think about past negative events, then they can reduce or enhance the emotional intensity experienced during the recall. In other words, addicts have the power to change the way they react to cravings, albeit with work.
Taking Research for a Road Test: How to Apply
The message about this research is clear for recovering addicts: learn to manage feelings—not anesthetize them—to maintain sobriety. For this reason, most treatment centers cultivate healthy strategies to manage stress; the following skills have proven effective:
- Reaching out – Talking about feelings decreases stress, anxiety and grief. Calling a recovery-friendly person or booking a session with a professional for ongoing support can help you recapture perspective and become more insightful.
- Make a preemptive strike – Use a journal to list negative emotions that surface when you reflect on the past or get triggered by emotional flashbacks (you can ask a friend or therapist for help with this process). Next, generate a corresponding list of actions that will reframe your thinking and avoid falling into an emotional booby trap. Keep some of your ideas practical, like going to the gym to cope with a recurrence of anger or sorrow that is linked to a painful memory.
- Join a community – Attend a support group meeting to break isolation, a behavior people are prone to when they feel hurt or wounded
Another way to regulate your emotions is to cultivate mindfulness. A growing body of evidence proves that meditation, or Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), is an effective way to gain emotional control. This method teaches people to pay attention in the following ways:
- On purpose
- In the present moment
- Without judgment
Instead of trying to avoid or push down emotions, MSBR teaches addicts to take a posture of curiosity and compassion. It also teaches them to resist urges to take action, judge or “fix” feelings. Simply noticing anxiety, sadness and grief is all it takes to bring relief and usher in self-acceptance. This therapy also improves resiliency, which makes difficult memories and emotions feel less traumatic. These benefits empower addicts to achieve lasting sobriety.
Recovery from Addiction
If you or someone you love struggles with addiction, then know that help is available. Admissions coordinators at our toll-free, 24 hour helpline can guide you to wellness. Do not go it alone when help is just one phone call away; start your recovery now by reaching out to professional help.