There is a treatment modality I am particularly fond of call Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). It works particularly well for those who tend to lean too heavily into either their emotional mind or their logical mind. As someone who has worked a lot with dual diagnosis patients (those with comorbid substance use disorders and mental health issues), I have used this technique a lot with others. Well, now I’m using it on myself. Stopping the use of a mind-altering substance, particularly one that has been used as a coping mechanism for many years, can often result in a flood of emotions and false equivalencies that can undermine recovery.
The concept is that if we lean too heavily on making decisions based on our emotions we tend to disregard logic. If we lean too heavily on logic we tend to disregard our equally valid emotional responses. The Wise Mind is the middle road. It is often visualized with a Venn diagram with emotions in one circle and logic in the other. The Wise Mind is the area of overlap.
When stopping a substance like alcohol your emotional mind might be telling you that you need a drink to handle negative emotions such as stress, anxiety, depression, anger, loneliness, etc., in addition to positive emotions such as would arise during times of celebration, relief, and camaraderie. The image of the sad drinker does not necessarily ring true for many users of alcohol. Often alcohol is emotionally associated with very positive emotions and celebrations. I drank with friends, during birthday parties, anniversaries, my wedding, to toast love and to welcome new life. My emotions tell me that those special events will lose their spark if I’m not drinking.
Your emotional mind is not the only culprit in stalling recovery. Your logical mind will also come into play. Your logical mind takes in data, analyses the data, and releases the results from the data constantly. For example, in the past your logical mind will associate celebrations with alcohol. The data you have fed your logical mind is that when you are celebrating a joyous occasion and having a good time you are also drinking alcohol, so it correlates alcohol use with celebration and fun. Of course for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If you believe that alcohol = joy, then your logical mind will naturally flip that to believe that without alcohol you will not experience the same level of joy. The same goes for negative feelings. You may have provided your logical mind with data that says alcohol relieves stress due to the relief you get from clouding your mind with an intoxicating substance, which when flipped suggests to your logical mind that in a life without alcohol your stress will increase or you will have no way to relieve that stress.
In order to reprogram your logical mind you need to add new data that disproves the previously collected data. Does your joy at parties or celebrations with those you love stem from the alcohol or from the people you are with? If you find that you must drink alcohol to enjoy being around certain people is being with them the best use of your time and energy? Once you start gaining awareness and collecting data you are going to find that you experience some internal struggle. You have some data that tells you one thing and new data that challenges those conceptions.
This is where cognitive dissonance comes in to play. Cognitive dissonance is when you have multiple beliefs that contradict each other, and you can sense the discomfort of those contradicting beliefs because can’t seem to make them fit together. In addition to considering logically whether alcohol is truly necessary for joy or stress relief, as you look more into your alcohol use you will collect and process additional scientific data from outside resources. You have learned that alcohol may be unhealthy for your body. It increases cancer risks and can severely damage your liver and pancreas. It increases your risk of accidents and can result in very negative consequences, such as DUIs and risky behaviors. You may be uncomfortable with how much you are drinking and may be concerned that you are consuming too much and it is becoming a maladaptive coping skill. You also believe logically and/or emotionally that alcohol contributes to your wellbeing by relieving stress and increasing enjoyment.
Breaking down these beliefs can be difficult, but are necessary for truly reaching a point where your Wise Mind can take over and you can eliminate some of your cognitive dissonance. To better illustrate my point I have included a scenario that reflects a fairly typical day in my life.
Scenario: I had a stressful day at work. A big grant is due. A client loses their housing. Three employees call in sick. By the time 4pm rolls around I am emotionally and physically exhausted. I’m craving a drink. My emotional mind is craving relief from the negative emotions I am experiencing. I need to counter the emotions with logic to reach the Wise Mind. Logically I know that the problems will still exist after I have that drink. I mentally walk myself through the evening. If I drink one glass I will inevitably finish the bottle. The grant will still be due, but now I am not doing my best work on it, if I work on it at all, and my mind will be less sharp the next day. My client will still be in the same situation and my workload will continue to pile up from the staff shortage. Instead of drinking I choose to implement a balanced solution to my problems. I spend 20 minutes when I get home decompressing. I practice some mindfulness, make a cup of tea, and create a list of what I need to accomplish. I make progress on the grant, research resources that might help my client, and am able to sort and prioritize the office workload so that the critical tasks are completed. I wake up the next morning tired, but further along than I was the day before. I have treated myself kindly and with care by acknowledging my emotions, finding a logical path forward, and not putting off my issues to the next day for a foggy, even-more-stressed version of myself to deal with.
Today I am going to choose to feel my emotions, treat myself kindly, and use my logical resources to find balance.