By: Marilyn L. Davis
“Fear’s useless. Either something bad happens or it doesn’t: If it doesn’t, you’ve wasted time being afraid, and if it does, you’ve wasted time that you could have spent sharpening your weapons.” ― Sarah Rees Brennan, The Demon’s Lexicon
Fearful Emotions are Predictable and Spontaneous
Emotions are a reaction to external stimuli, like seeing a snake and getting scared; other emotions happen when you look internally at your actions, such as guilt.
Some emotional responses or reactions take us by surprise. You are riding with a friend down a country road admiring the changing season, listening to the birds as they fly south and glad that it’s still warm enough for the top down.
You round the corner, and up ahead, a tree blocks the road. The driver hits the brakes, and in this case, there’s no accident, damage, or someone hurt – crisis averted.
While you’re feeling relieved, what is also registering is the pounding heart, anxiety and fear; just a predictable reaction to any crisis, even with no one hurt.
Fear is a Heavy Emotion
When we speak of feelings, we often assign a weight or attribute to them that lets us know if they are light or heavy. For instance:
- Joy, happiness, and serenity feel light, airy, and pleasant
- Anger, jealousy, and guilt, however, may feel heavy, burdensome, or stifling
- Guilt may create heaviness around your heart
The heavier an emotion, the more it registers, so you can create the illusion that you are only feeling one thing.
However, if you look below the surface of your first feeling, you may find fear. The next time that you experience an adverse emotion stop and ask yourself, “What is my fear underneath this emotion?
Negative Emotions in Early Recovery
It’s surprising how many degrees of negative feelings we have in our early recovery. We’re experiencing gratitude and appreciation for getting out the vicious cycle of use, but we’re also experiencing more negative feelings, too. The conflicting feelings in turn create confusions and some people just feel overwhelmed by their feelings. Other people choose to relapse over these feelings. A better way is to learn how to isolate the fear beneath the negative emotions.
What are some predictable negative emotions that a person in early recovery might experience?
- Abandonment: Fear of rejection, feeling left out, feeling alone
- Anger: Something or someone is threatening your sense of self, or your sense of right/wrong
- Anxiety or Apprehension: Fear of the unknown, or worrying that “something bad will happen.”
- Guilt: Fear of having done or not done something, said or not said anything
- Indecision: Fear of the outcome or a wrong choice, fear of consequences of the choice
- Insecurity: Fear of losing something or someone, fear of ridicule, or appearing worthless
- Jealousy: Fear for your security, fear that others are better than you or more fortunate than you.
You may not experience all the emotions listed above. However, if you look at your personal negative emotions, then isolate the fear underneath that emotion, you are beginning to find ways to regulate or deal with these feelings.
Regulating and Managing Negative Emotions
Learning to regulate or manage your negative emotions is going to help you immensely in your recovery, but just as importantly, it will improve your overall mental health. “One of the cornerstones of alcoholism recovery is what’s called “emotional sobriety.”
The idea is that alcoholics and other addicts, if they hope to stay sober over the long haul, must learn to regulate the negative feelings that can lead to discomfort, craving and—ultimately—relapse.” ~Wray Herbert, from his book, On Second Though
Getting to the Fears
So, how do we get to the fear beneath our negative emotions? To separate the fear underneath your other negative emotions, just write your personal list of negative emotions, and then write out your fear statement.
For instance, you know that you are feeling “abandoned” by your using buddies and “alone” and “apart” from the new people in recovery. If you isolate the fear in these negative emotions, it is often as straightforward as “I’m afraid I will never have any friends again.”
Then you realize that attending groups, treatment, or supportive recovery meetings means that you are meeting and interacting with whole new groups of people. Interacting with new people means that you are starting to have a social life that doesn’t revolve around drugs and alcohol, so you know that the fear of not having any friends is probably not correct.
The Fear Under the Other Negative Emotions
Looking beneath your negative emotions, can help you isolate and find any fear you have. You’ve determined that it’s not about being abandoned, or alone, or apart from, so what is potentially your fear? You might decide it’s more about your “insecurity”, and being afraid that you won’t fit in with this new group of people in recovery. If you find that you’ve discovered more negative emotions, ask yourself if they are legitimate. Acknowledge the fear and ask yourself, “Is this a genuine fear?”
For example, you have an important meeting where you will be making your first presentation. Typically, your co-workers do not ask your advice or opinion, and you are hoping that with this exposure, they will be more inclined to come to you for guidance.
While you are excited about the prospect of this opportunity, you have underlying fears. You don’t have a lot of experience speaking in front of over 100 people, and when you think about that aspect of your speech, you become nervous, anxious, and fearful. But what are the reasons for these fears?
- You could be afraid that you will not present well.
Underlying message: I’m afraid that I am inept, lack ability, and I fear appearing clumsy in my speech.
- You could be afraid that you are not going to impress your supervisor or co-workers.
Underlying message: I’m insecure because I’m not good enough, I’m afraid of rejection, losing my job and economic fears.
- You could be afraid that someone else could give a better, more interesting presentation.
Underlying message: I’m afraid of being incompetent, I’m afraid that I’ll look like a fool if I try to tell a joke to break the ice.
Stop and Examine these Underlying Messages and Fears
- Are your presentation materials, concise, engaging, and informative? Yes. Then you can feel some confidence in a presentation well done.
- Are you qualified and knowledgeable about the subject? Yes. Just this one piece of information can cut, dispel or regulate the fear.
- Have you done enough preparation for the presentation, including telling a credible and interesting story? Yes. Give yourself credit for being ready.
Don’t Judge Your Negative Emotions
Sometimes people trap themselves as they are isolating their individual emotions because they decide that their reasons for their fears are senseless, meaningless, or foolish. Others become concerned about the value of their fears as it relates to others.
Do not do that to yourself.
When you are isolating your fears; they are yours. Do not let others decide if fear is authentic or not, so do not edit or minimize them; if you have a fear, look at it and decide if it is legitimate.
Responding Not Reacting
When you personalize your negative emotions, list people who prompt negative reactions, and give an individualized situation. You are now, beginning to be proactive in your approach to dealing with your negative emotions and the underlying fears. Initially, you want to create a table similar to mine to help you test how your negative feelings might influence your life. This table will help you see if there are patterns in your negative emotions and their fears.
It can help you find the predictable stresses, either situations or people and you can plan to respond to these situations, persons or feelings in a more positive way and not reacting to situations or people.
So, What Do I Do with all this Fear?
Everyone in recovery has had bouts of fear, and, unfortunately, some people have relapsed over their fears. Because relapse is so difficult and stressful, finding alternative solutions to dealing with your fears will not only help your recovery but your overall mental health as well.
According to Charles and her colleagues in the journal of Psychological Science, studies show that mental health outcomes aren’t only affected by significant life events — they also bear the impact of seemingly minor emotional experiences. The study suggests that the chronic nature of these negative emotions in response to daily stress can take a toll on long-term mental health.
Daily Negative Emotions and Fear List
Start your day by isolating your negative emotions and the fears beneath them. Next, create a calming statement and test how you feel about the situation after you write your calming statement. Do this for 30 days and see if you don’t see a difference in how you regulate your fears. Here are some examples to get you started.
Negative Emotion/Situation and Calming Statements
- Anger: I’m afraid that if my roommates keep using my things, I won’t have anything when I need it.
I will approach this situation from my fear and explain that I’m afraid I can’t replace what they are using.
- Inferiority: I’m afraid I am not smart enough to get this thing called recovery.
I will ask knowledgeable people and follow their directions.
- Guilt over past actions: I’m afraid I will go back to stealing if I relapse and hurt my family more.
I will make changes in my life and not re-create the same outcomes.
How I Felt After Creating the Calming Statement
It’s important to recognize how we feel after we’ve done something differently. If we feel good, it reinforces that we’ve done something positive. Try viewing your accomplishments from a feelings perspective.
I feel optimistic that a different approach will give me better outcomes.
I feel confident that most people are willing to teach and share their knowledge with me.
I feel encouraged that I can make changes and not produce more guilt.
Reinforcing A Good Thing
Writing Calming Statements initially will plant a seed, and you may find that, after about a month, you automatically create a mental Calming Statement when you feel a negative emotion and isolate the fear beneath it. The value of “How did I feel after the Calming Statement” is so that you begin to see where you are changing your perspective and regulating your negative emotions. Recovery will always be about the exploration of new and creative ways to better your life.
Negative Emotions, Fear Lists, and Calming Statements can become one of the Recovery Resources that you have readily available.
Writing, and recovery heals the heart