As much as we’d like to think we can control, manage or plan for every aspect of life, life is anything but predictable. The unpredictable nature of life is what makes it worth living, what brings us joy, surprise and unexpected happiness.
It is also what brings unexpected events that can challenge anyone. These challenges are opportunities to practice coping skills, reach out for support from loved ones and learn something about ourselves and our world at the same time. Knowing that the unexpected is unavoidable and will test recovery is not a cause for fear, and if we approach change using coping skills and relapse prevention strategies, sobriety becomes stronger.
Unexpected Events as Relapse Triggers
Unexpected events trigger many behaviors, thoughts and emotions. Not all of these are negative, as handling the unexpected well can leave us feeling confident, self-efficacious and able to withstand challenges. However, the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance explains that unexpected events can also cause the following:
- Numbness, inability to experience feelings, feelings of disconnectedness
- Changing emotions such as shock, denial, guilt or self-blame
- Extreme sadness, crying
- Mood changes such as irritability, anxiousness, nervousness, pessimism or indifference
- Inability to concentrate
- Recurring memories or bad dreams about the event
- Social withdrawal, isolation, strained personal relationships
- Physical symptoms such as unexplained aches and pains, nausea, fatigue, loss of energy
- Changes in eating habits or sleeping patterns
- Increased consumption of alcohol
If you have completed a rehab program or learned more about addiction and recovery on your own or through your own experiences, you will recognize that many of these are also potential relapse triggers. The infamous acronym for common relapse triggers, HALT stands for “hungry, angry, lonely, tired,” and as Yoga and the Twelve-Step Path explains, “When hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, we are more prone to a ‘slip,’ a return to our addictive substance or behavior.” Our emotional responses to unexpected events often fall into one or more of the HALT states of mind. Feeling numb and disconnected can make us angry, sad or tired.
Denial or self-blame, irritability and pessimism are forms of anger. Bad dreams and changes in sleeping patterns can leave us tired, as can the simple fact that low energy is often a response to stressful events. Social withdrawal and strained relationships make us feel lonely even when we may have someone just a phone call away who would actually listen and understand. Unexpected events trigger many, if not all, of the emotional states that can contribute to relapse. This does not mean that this test to recovery will end in relapse, or that relapse is the end of recovery.
When unexpected events challenge your sobriety, learning how to manage associated thoughts and emotions makes relapse less likely and means that, no matter the outcome, you will get through the situation and learn more about yourself, your strengths and your recovery needs.
Learn How You Respond to Unexpected Events and Tests to Recovery
One of the best ways to meet the challenges that come with recovery and with life is to be prepared. Unexpected events themselves do not test recovery or contribute to relapse, but your conscious and subconscious response to them does. Learn more about yourself, your moods and how you handle the unexpected to learn how to experience life events without returning to drugs or alcohol.
Relapse Prevention: Maintenance Strategies in the Treatment of Addictive Behaviors shares that therapy options that, “enhance clients’ ability to identify and manage negative moods and/or anger will likely contribute to improvements in both the psychiatric and substance use disorders.” Awareness of how you feel is all-important when how you feel is directly related to your mental health and addiction recovery. When the unexpected happens, if you can recognize sadness, you can learn how to experience it without relapsing. If you can recognize anger, you can learn how to healthily direct it into physical activity or creative outlet rather than let it stay and take over your actions. When you are prepared to deal with emotions, you are prepared to deal with unexpected events.
Support and Recovery Maintenance
Knowing your own feelings isn’t always enough, as you still have to deal with them after recognizing them. A good recovery program will offer many of the tools needed to cope with stress, cravings and life events. Social support is all-important when it comes to managing unexpected events. Relapse Prevention explains, “Lack of social support may be an obstacle to recovery from [mental health and addiction disorders], and here again both are likely to be improved by provided training in social skills, effective communication, and development of a social support network.” Knowing how to communicate and how and where to ask for help are essential aspects of managing the unexpected. You do not have to be able to handle everything on your own, but if you want to maintain your recovery, you do have to recognize this and know when it is time to reach out, to get the professional or personal support that can bridge the gap between your abilities and your challenges.