The intensity of our emotional reactions to things can be a gauge as to whether we are dealing with them in a healthy manner. If we are upset about something, getting angry, dwelling on it, then we would do well to focus not on the situation or person but on our own reactions. The emotionÕs the thing: we are likely to transfer our anger or frustration from one situation to another. It doesnÕt matter what other people are doing, or what is happening in the world. What matters is how we are reacting, which is entirely within our control.
Buddhists will tell you (so IÕm told; I havenÕt studied it) that anger is a toxic, unhealthy emotion, and should always be dealt with. Dealing with it comes from within. It isnÕt a matter of fixing the cause. ÒThe basic problem according to Buddhism, is that emotions like anger and hatred are based on projections and exaggeration, not on objectivity or wisdom, and thus basically incorrect.Ó
Harmful events from our past may play a big role. You canÕt change the past, obviously. You may have chosen not to disengage from the people who upset you, who did things that were harmful. You could choose not to have anything to do with them; that would ÔfixÕ the problem. But it wouldnÕt assuage the anger.
But our past doesnÕt have to determine our present. Our past doesnÕt have to affect our future if we choose not to let it. People survive horrible traumas; some go on just fine due to healthy attitudes. They donÕt block out the memories, they accept them. They develop acceptance and a healthy set of core beliefs about what upset them.
The process is simple in concept, but it takes time because it requires repetition. Some people focus on the positive aspects of their present condition. Others develop more realistic beliefs about events or people (accepting what canÕt be changed). Our negative thoughts tend to be repetitive, and to pop into our minds at predictable times (holidays É ). It helps to develop simple statements that you hold true about people and events, to make them memorable somehow, so you can repeat them when necessary.
An example. When I think of my fatherÕs declining physical and mental health, I think of the small comforts in his life that are leading to a level of happiness even in his current condition. YouÕve heard the banalities people utter (Òhe had a long and happy lifeÓ). Think about the serene people you know. Generally they have well-developed skills for deflecting unhealthy thoughts, taking a realistic or practical attitude about lifeÕs changes.
These are reflexive ways of reminding ourselves of the positive aspects of our lives, helping to move us from upsetting thoughts to more affirmative thoughts about how things are now.
To practice, what you do is develop those beliefs and then you say and repeat them. And repeat them, and repeat them. Some people donÕt know what they believe! Why? Because they accept all the thoughts in their heads as being of equal validity. Alcohol and drugs muddle the process because they bring the more primitive part of our brain to the fore. Guilt and shame also inhibit our ability to filter unhealthy thoughts.
Cognitive approaches sometimes use the terms ÒrationalÓ and ÒirrationalÓ to describe the beliefs that we are reacting to. I prefer ÒhealthyÓ or ÒunhealthyÓ as a way of recognizing the beliefs in terms of their outcome. IÕve also seen Òfunctional/dysfunctionalÕ.Ó Whatever you prefer. Just learn to recognize that some beliefs lead you to actions that arenÕt in your best interest, while other beliefs can counter that tendency.
We are using our rational brain when we dispute these beliefs. So we stop drinking and start thinking in order to develop healthier beliefs. When you hear in your head the thoughts that you know are unhealthy, you drown them out with the rational, healthy beliefs. Repeat, repeat, repeat! It IS possible to change your beliefs, manage your emotions, and direct your thinking. That is the principle on which the entire advertising industry works!
Rational Recovery uses AVRT (Addictive Voice Recognition Training—a trademarked name). SMART Recovery uses a similar process called DISARM. TheyÕre based on the idea that we always have this jumble of different, sometimes conflicting, thoughts going on in our heads. Some are healthy, some arenÕt (unhealthy thoughts are simply those which lead to unhealthy behavior).
When we have had addictive tendencies itÕs often the result of dwelling on the unhealthy thoughts (especially regarding alcohol) and giving them equal credence or even obsessing about them. But they are really just fleeting impulses, and the process of arguing with them (disputing them) is exactly what we need to do in order to avoid the behavior. Impulses (urges) will pass. We will survive them, and we donÕt have to act on them.
We certainly donÕt act on every impulse that enters our brain, whether it is about sex, food, drugs, buying stuff, or yelling at people. Children do, but as we grow up we learn to modify our actions. We have rational filters in our brains about those behaviors. The process of conquering addiction is largely a matter of making that rational filter more effective when it comes to alcohol or drugs. ItÕs a matter of trading short-term gratification for long-term benefits.
This process is useful for dealing with upsetting thoughts, with urges, with harmful compulsions, with depression, with alcohol abuse, and so on. And you work on it every day, even with things that just upset you a little, because you are learning a new way of thinking.