Feelings are a much maligned, seldom appreciated and often misunderstood staple of the human experience. They are also a commonly cited impetus for drinking and abusing drugs. Using drugs or alcohol to excess can ostensibly “numb” a person’s feelings for a short period of time, allow them to temporarily forget their troubles or function in society in ways that they may have difficulty doing when they are overwhelmed by fear, grief or insecurity.
Sounds great, right? Not quite. Smothering a feeling with a drink or a drug works swiftly and fleetingly. This quick-acting, never-lasting emotional “solution” quietly and covertly leads to feeling the need for stronger drugs, more frequently. Often, a person drinks or uses drugs innocently to experience camaraderie, escape from grief or suppress insecurity. When the drugs wear off, though, the uncomfortable feelings come rushing back full force. When drinking or using is the primary solution, and the so-called problem persists, more drugs and alcohol more frequently is an understandable progression.
But are feelings really even the problem? Why do we have feelings to begin with? Is there some kind of purpose? And, what do we lose out on when we numb them?
The first problem with numbing feelings is, to quote author and researcher Dr. Brene Brown, “We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” It is simply not possible to shut down painful and uncomfortable feelings, but leave positive feelings of joy and connectivity in their unadulterated radiance. It’s all or nothing.
The emotional experience can be likened to waves in the ocean. Waves can be gentle or fierce, but they always pass us by when we allow them to. There will be another, different wave behind each that passes. Sometimes the whole ocean is calm and sometimes it is tumultuous. The nature of any one wave, though, does not affect the wholeness or completeness of the ocean. If we were to build a wall to keep out the high waves, it would also keep out the gentle waves that kiss the tops of your thighs and cool sun-warmed skin. You wouldn’t just lose the experience of the stormy wave, you’d lose the whole ocean.
But that doesn’t make “bad” feelings any less bad right?
Again, not quite. Feelings are neutral. Some may feel more or less uncomfortable than others, but they are not a sign that something is right or wrong. They are neither good nor bad, those are just value judgements that we sometimes assign to feelings. What feelings are is informational. They are an important and adaptive part of the human experience. A feeling is simply waking us up to our thinking in the moment. Feelings, like the name implies, are felt in the body—for example, anger can be experienced as heat rising, grief as a knot in the stomach or fear as a jumping or fluttering in the chest. These feelings, 100% of the time, are directly correlated to our thinking in the moment.
The good news is, we are perfectly built for emotional wellness and self-correction. When we allow ourselves to experience the full force of an uncomfortable feeling without trying to alter or ignore it, our thinking self-corrects and passes; our innate health rises to the surface. Think of uncomfortable feelings like gutter guards in a bowling alley. Gutter guards, typically used in children's or beginner's bowling, are bumpers that keep the ball from falling off the lane and into the gutter. When the ball bumps into them, it self-corrects, and moves back toward the center. Sometimes these bumps are hard and sometimes they are gentle, but they are always moving us back to center. To numb hard feelings would be like eliminating the gutter guard. We can get really far off track, even stuck in the gutter with no hope of knocking down a single pin, all because we were unwilling to bump into anything.
When we feel the sensation of hunger, it is our body’s natural way of telling us that we need to eat. When we feel pain in a muscle, it is our body’s natural way of telling us that we need to rest. Is it so hard to believe that feelings of all types are merely telling us something important? When we numb feelings, we aren’t listening. We aren’t self-correcting. We are getting further and further from center, and the discomfort only intensifies as our wonderful, adaptive bodies scream even louder, begging for our attention.
Maybe, instead of looking for a less destructive way to silence our feelings, we should, in fact, listen.
If you or someone you care about, has an ongoing history of substance use and relapse, contact us at Gulf Breeze Recovery or Call: (855) 433-4480 to speak to an addiction expert to learn more about our program that has helped so many people overcome their addiction and embrace life. We help people not just to survive, but to THRIVE®.
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