Behavioral approaches to sobriety have specific tools for dealing with Low Frustration Tolerance. LFT is our inability to remain calm in the face of the petty annoyances, irritating events and people, setbacks and obstacles that we face on a day-to-day basis. These are known triggers, and our attitudes and beliefs about them can lead to unhealthy behavior. The phrase “drive us to drink” comes to mind.
But what about major frustration—the emotional upheavals that come from life-changing events? Frustration, perceived lack of control over our environment, embarrassment, humiliation, distress about world events, anxiety and fear: these can lead to anger, depression, and a spiraling pattern of behavior seemingly borne of despair.
What about loss of a job? Relationship or marriage dissolution? The child whose behavior is increasingly passive-aggressive, or withdrawn? The illness or death of a loved one; a boyfriend in the military mobilized for war; financial difficulties beyond our control; egregiously bad or abusive behavior by a family member or employer? War, terror, snipers, or cataclysmic weather? Our own illness or severe physical pain? Folks on this board often describe life events that are very hard to deal with. But remember: folks who deal with similar or worse events cope with them without alcohol.
Sometimes events or the behavior of others can be unarguably difficult. We may be attracted to drugs or alcohol because they help us to escape, mentally or physically, these difficult circumstances. We can’t change the facts, but we can change how we react to them. The simplest behavioral principle is that we can change our beliefs. The same principles we use to deal with low frustration tolerance can be helpful in facing life-altering events.
1. Change your vocabulary. Especially avoiding the tendency to label events as “bad” can make a big difference. Be more realistic: describe the events more precisely. Something can be difficult, hard to deal with, frustrating, challenging, painful, distressing. Or use humor to describe the events: it’s the pits, the sh*ts, etc.
2. Get a reality check. Recognize that your perception of the situation may be based on your beliefs and emotions, rather than on the facts of the case. In other words, some of your beliefs may be irrational. It can be very difficult to step outside your own head and look at the situation objectively. Seeking the perspective of others can provide a reality check. That’s what we’re here for.
3. Simplify the issue mentally. Assessing a major event can bog down into quibbles about the reality of the situation. “Is it really that bad? Am I being realistic?” You may want to just yell “YES! The situation really IS dire!” So breaking it into smaller parts can be an effective way to compartmentalize the problem. “I am overwhelmed by my mother’s illness” can be harder to deal with than “Finding nursing care is expensive and tedious.” A big problem can often be viewed as a series of smaller, more tractable problems.
4. Avoid “awfulizing,” which is overstating the severity of the situation. Dwelling on the severity of the problem is less productive than
a) working on a road map out of the quagmire, or
b) working to develop a healthier attitude about things we can’t change. Which leads to …
5. Accept reality. Recognize and accept what you can’t change. Look outside that seemingly overwhelming situation at the things that are working. When my son and I went on a camping trip shortly after my wife left, I was looking melancholy one evening and he asked me what was wrong. I commented that this was the first time we’d done this without her. And he said, “yeah, but that’s not ALL bad, is it, Dad?” That’s a pretty good motto when you’re beginning to despair: it isn’t ALL bad, is it?
6. Find a diversion. Filling your time with activities that take your mind of the depressing situation can be the first step towards accepting it. I’m not saying you should avoid the problems—avoid the triggers. What are the things you like to do? Why not spend more time doing them?
7. Smile even when it hurts. Cultivate your sense of humor. This is really a way of deflecting discouraging emotions. Consciously seek out things that make you smile, or better yet, laugh out loud. There really can be humor in almost everything. One of my junior high school teachers asked me, “Is everything funny to you?” To which I replied, “it’s better than the alternative…” Ok, so I had to sit out in the hall for a while—but he did crack a smile.
8. Know the symptoms of depression and anxiety. These are real physical phenomena with emotional roots. Recognize when they are occurring, have a plan for dealing with them, and seek help if necessary. In the long run, dealing with the underlying causes of depression or anxiety will be one of the keys to long-term sobriety.
9. Mark your progress. After an event occurs, there will be longer intervals between episodes of sadness or anxiety, and there are likely to be longer intervals between urges to drink or use drugs. These facts are related! Notice how long you’ve gone since you last had an emotional upset or an urge.
10. Anticipate your frustrations and urges. Do you usually have stressful times in the early evening, when you’re frustrated by the amount of housework to be done, or on Friday evenings, when you used to always do such-and-such? Or when the clock hits 5:30, ‘cuz that’s when you always used to start drinking? Have a diversion in place, or a disputation; look at the mantra that you’ve got written on a card in your pocket or purse.
It has been said that “an urge is often a flag that there is some other underlying situation that requires looking into. We usually drank as a response to stress over a situation. What is that situation and how can we deal more effectively with the situation, instead of just dealing with the stress?” That last part is important: “instead of just dealing with the stress.”
Remember—remind yourself consciously, daily, out loud—that nothing which is sad, frustrating, or difficult will be made better by drinking. Nor, in spite of our belief, will drinking make it more bearable. Drinking increases depression, exacerbates anxiety, and delays positive action.