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Anger During Recovery

Skills to Practice: Managing Anger

It’s natural to be angry when you’re in residential treatment for substance abuse. You’re feeling angry at your family members as well as anybody who had anything to do with your admission into treatment: Your doctor, your lawyer if you had a brush with the law, your boss if you were caught high at work, the judge if you had to choose between treatment or jail, the counselor who’s in charge of your treatment—and you’re especially angry at yourself.

You have to learn how to manage anger, an idea that might seem overwhelming when it’s all you can do to comply with the rules of treatment. Many people struggling with recovery will relapse when they are angry. While you’re still in active treatment, it’s time to learn how to control those strong emotions. It’s okay to feel anger, but you have to know how to express it.

Beginning treatment naturally brings out the anger in both you and the people close to you. Topics discussed in therapy or failings on the part of one another confronted and expressed can evoke strong negative feelings. Even seeing a relative tuck her purse out of site when you’re home on a pass because she doesn’t trust you might make you angry. 

People who use drugs or alcohol often fail to learn how to express anger properly while they are growing up. Using drugs stunts your emotional growth, like it or not—and now you have to learn expression that is both healthy and productive.

How do you express your anger? Think back to your childhood and remember the parents or the parenting figures you grew up with. What was your mother like when she was angry? What about your dad? Did they shout? Did they hit you or other people? Did they punch walls or throw hairbrushes? Did they walk around in mind-numbing silence?

Chances are good that you express your anger like one of them. Whether or not you admired your parents—which, incidentally, has nothing to do with loving them—you learned from them how to express your feelings.

Try this anger exercise:

  • Think about an incident that made you angry. What triggered your anger?
  • How did you respond?
  • Write down something good about your response.
  • How could you improve if this happens again?

During group therapy in residential treatment for substance abuse, the counselor might have individuals pair up for role-playing sessions in which you practice getting angry with one another. Activities like these might seem silly and useless, but they help you practice anger management techniques.

Whenever anger gets a grip on you, write down why you are angry and why this particular situation makes you angry. (For example, you might be angry at your coworker who took credit for your work, and the reason is because your own worth to the company goes unnoticed.)

If you are going to talk to this person, approach them without yelling and set a time to have a talk. Maintain eye contact and keep your voice calm. Do not attack them or bring up old grievances. Speak using “I” statements instead of “you” statements, such as “I get angry when” instead of “You said this-or-that.” If you haven’t figured out how to talk to the person, write a letter, but do not give it to them for a few days—after you re-read it, you may want to modify it. Anger “time-outs” are useful; you put away your anger until you can confront issues with a cooler head.

As you deal with the issues that make you angry, remember that some people and events from the past cannot be changed; you can only move forward from them. Set a limit of the length of time that you allow yourself to be angry, and then begin practicing deep breathing, exercises, or other stress-relieving activities. Remember the Serenity Prayer: You need the serenity to accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference.  

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