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How Emotions Can Impact Recovery and May Lead to Relapse

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Individuals who begin using drugs or alcohol may do so to escape feeling negative emotions. Furthermore, individuals may also begin using drugs or alcohol as a reward that enhances positive emotions.

When a person is in recovery for substance use disorder (SUD), experiencing these negative or positive emotions could lead to a relapse.


Early recovery is an emotional rollercoaster of a journey, where individuals experience a sequence of highs and lows on a daily, or even hourly, basis. After maintaining recovery for a few months, these highs and lows tend to slow down, however, maintaining sobriety and the path of recovery continues to be a challenge for years.

Dealing with emotions in recovery is one of the hardest things to deal with and may jeopardize one’s recovery and lead to relapse. The emotions that are most likely to cause issues for people in recovery include, but are not limited to:

  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Boredom
  • Guilt
  • Loneliness
  • Joy
  • Happiness


Recovery is a time to rebuild one’s life, and not knowing where to start or who to turn to may foster feelings of loneliness. Being alone and feeling lonely are different, in that a person may be standing in the middle of a group of people and still feel lonely. Loneliness is an individualized and subjective experience that involves feeling empty and isolated.

Since we as humans are social beings, loneliness is a difficult emotion to handle. Once an individual decides to quit using substances, this often entails leaving their social group behind who also engaged in substance use.

Separating from these toxic relationships is vital to a long-lasting recovery, and might lead to feelings of loneliness when those relationships no longer exist. Thoughts of relapse accompany negative emotions such as feeling lonely.

The most effective tool against this feeling is creating new relationships and connections based in recovery. Having a sober network of friends is a great way to foster a long-lasting recovery and battle feelings of loneliness.

Boredom, or feeling that you have nothing to do is also a dangerous emotion, as it is one of the main reasons that people return to substance use in early recovery. Feeling motivated to discover activities to fill the time previously spent on drug or alcohol use may be difficult.

Those individuals who experience excessive boredom may feel as if their life is unproductive and unsatisfying and leads one down a path of negative thinking. They may begin to romanticize thoughts of previous substance use and feel excited by these memories. Therefore, when boredom ensues, it may trigger a relapse.

Trying new activities and revisiting previously abandoned hobbies due to substance use may be the best ways to reengage with life and enhance recovery. Feeling lonely and bored may lead to feelings of wanting to return to substance use but discovering ways to fill that space during this vulnerable period will help to maintain recovery.

The good news is that after extended periods of recovery and sobriety, most individuals realize that they do not have enough time in the day to complete the activities they want to do.


Negative emotions are not the only ones that can trigger a relapse, while in recovery, positive emotions have the power to do this as well. Sources of stress from feeling joyful and being happy could be:

  • Having a first date
  • Taking a vacation trip
  • Getting promoted at work
  • Other exciting events

These positive feelings may cause one to feel overwhelmed, just like negative feelings. In the vulnerable stage of early recovery, resisting the urge to use is an ever-present feeling, and so experiencing excitement may trigger a relapse.


Anger is the most dangerous of all emotions because when people are angry, they are not thinking straight. During these emotional times, it is easy to engage in behaviors one might later regret, which leads to feelings of guilt.

Guilt helps no one and is extremely self-destructive. Since it is impossible to change the past, the best thing to do is focus on the future. Unfortunately, fearing the future also fosters an environment for relapse.

It may even prevent one from positively progressing in recovery. The most common fears that people face in recovery involve worrying about things that have not yet happened, or may not ever happen, such as:

  • Worries related to coping without the help of drugs and alcohol
  • Feeling financially insecure
  • Fear of being unhealthy or even death
  • Feeling that one will not find happiness through recovery
  • Relationship problems

Self-destructive thoughts related to anger, fear, and guilt create an easy path to relapse. Managing these destructive emotions is imperative to maintaining a successful and long-lasting recovery.


There are many ways that people can deal with dangerous emotions. Learning coping strategies for handling emotions that may impact the path to recovery is crucial. Finding a support group, or a circle of sober friends, is one of the protective factors that one must engage in to achieve a successful recovery from a substance use disorder involving drugs or alcohol. One must also let go of fearing the future, handle anger and guilt in positive ways, and believe that recovery is possible because it is. There is hope for a bright and sober future. Call us today at 1-844-947-4673.   

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