Managing Complex Emotions in Recovery

Leaving treatment and entering the world of recovery on your own does not mean you won’t have bad days or days that you feel stuck in place. There is no cure for addiction or mental health disorders, but they can be treated over time to manage symptoms. However, the symptoms will never disappear forever without treatment. There will be days that you will come face to face with complex, distressing emotions such as sadness, anger, grief, anxiety, and others. These can be hard to cope with in the moment, but how you deal with them will set the stage for your future. Distressing emotions can be a potential relapse trigger, but having the proper coping skills will help you pick yourself up and move on. 

Put a Name to the Feeling

Knowing how to recognize and identify certain emotions can help you navigate the proper coping skill to alleviate them. For example, there is a difference between feelings of guilt and shame. Guilt is more of a surface feeling and pushes you to right a wrong. Shame is internal and can lead to negative thoughts and coping mechanisms. If you notice yourself feeling shameful, you can take the proper steps to get rid of that feeling. Learn to identify your emotions and put a name to them so you can be sure of how to handle them properly.

Practice Acceptance

When you feel a complex emotion, your initial reaction may be to distract yourself to avoid it. While this may work for some time, you will eventually have to face the feeling. The longer you try to avoid certain emotions, the more intense they become until you are forced to feel them. The best way to rid yourself of the feeling is to accept the emotion when you experience it. Acknowledge the emotion’s presence and allow yourself to feel it, asking why you feel this way. This will help you become more self-aware and will enable you to stop running from your emotions. Accept their presence and welcome them in to learn from them.

Communicate What You Are Feeling

Now that you know what you are feeling and have accepted it into the present moment, you can express how you feel outwardly. Keep in mind that you should express it in safe and healthy ways to protect yourself, others, and your sobriety. Depending on the emotion, you may be feeling driven to different ways of expressing yourself. If you feel sad, you may feel like you need to cry to get the feelings out. If you are experiencing grief, connecting with a loved one is an excellent option for communicating your feelings. If you are feeling anger, consider screaming into a pillow or popping a balloon. Expressing your emotions is an integral part of the process of managing them. Find safe and healthy ways that work for you to help you avoid internalizing your feelings.

Use Coping Mechanisms

Sometimes, you may experience such distressing emotions that you simply do not know how to express them healthily. When these moments occur, try to engage in healthy coping mechanisms to alleviate the feelings enough for you to talk about them. Some examples of healthy coping mechanisms include:

Go For a Walk

When you remove yourself from the situation, you can think more clearly and get a hold of your emotions. Walk away from whatever is causing you distress and take a walk outside. This will give you fresh air and time to think before responding negatively.

Deep Breathing

Breathing exercises can help you calm down naturally, and they can be done from anywhere. Try different ones until you find one that works for you to reduce your distress.

Write in a Journal

Experiencing complex emotions can make it challenging to put what you are feeling into spoken words. When this occurs, try writing in a journal. This way, you can still vent and describe what you are feeling without the pressure of another person there. You can reflect on what you wrote later to learn from what you felt. 

Try Exercising

Exercise is a natural way to boost your mood and alleviate stress due to dopamine release during physical activity. When you are feeling swallowed by your emotions, try exercising even for a couple of minutes. This will give you time to release that energy and think rationally about what you are feeling.

Talk to Someone You Trust

If you feel too overwhelmed, try talking to someone who knows about your recovery, which can support you during this time. Two great options for this include your sponsor and your therapist, who know proper coping techniques to help you stay on track. They can also help you work through what you feel so you don’t have to do it alone.


A common mistake in recovery is that individuals become overly confident in their ability to handle distressing emotions once they leave treatment. It is important to remember that just because you have been through treatment does not mean you are invincible to bad days or complex emotions. Knowing that you will struggle and therefore preparing for those days will help you maintain recovery for the long term. At Northstar Transitions, we do our best to teach our clients proper coping skills to manage complex emotions while they are in treatment with us. However, should you ever need help after treatment, we are here to help. We can answer any questions you may have and support you through your recovery journey. Remember to keep practicing your emotional regulation skills to help support your recovery. Bad days will come, but you will always have the power to come out on top. Call Northstar Transitions today at (303) 558-6400 to learn more.


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