Self-regulation: A 'Handy' Way to Calmness and Connection” was first published on RecoveryView.com, an Online Journal on November 2, 2020.
Your values are your principles or judgments about what is most important in life. In essence, they are like a GPS guiding you to stay motivated and on track to living a life consistent with your beliefs, needs and wants. Addiction causes a major shift in one’s values. What one may have found central in his or her life previously, such as work, family, compassion, honesty and the like lose their importance. They are replaced by omnipresent thoughts about using and the object of the addiction, whether it’s a drink, drug or behavior: “When can I get my next fix?”; “Where can I get more?”; “Who might have some I can get?”; “How can I hide my addiction?” and so the obsessive thinking and craving goes...ad nauseum.
It’s important to know that values, besides directing your behavior, can have another purpose as well. You can choose to focus on values, in particular positive values, to reduce distress and enhance motivation to change. Attending to the positive value word you chose can have an almost immediate good, healthy impact on your mind, body and spirit. Let’s take a look at the following brief exercise which can help reduce stress, anxiety, depression, cravings and emotional distress in general. You can start with a couple of minutes and then be sure to do it for at least 5-10 minutes for optimized results.
Step 1: Check in with yourself how you are feeling emotionally, physically and mentally. It’s best to jot down some descriptions on a piece of paper before you start. Someone in early recovery might be experiencing a range of physical symptoms from withdrawal. If withdrawal is not the issue but perhaps feeling stressed or anxious is, one would write down “muscle tightness in neck and shoulders; stomach upset”. In terms of the emotion, one would write down “anxiety” or any other disturbing feelings present. Finally, note how you are faring mentally. What and how are you thinking? Thoughts regarding addictions, might include: “I’m so stressed out. I’ll never get clean and sober. I can’t do this and I’ll just fail again.” Negative thoughts like these can lead to intensifying any of the negative emotions and stress you’re feeling.
Step 2: Choose a positive value word, such as joy, peace, pleasure, happiness, harmony, love, confidence or others that resonates with you.
Step 3: Close your eyes and gently place a hand over your heart. As you rest your hand turn your focus to your breathing. As you inhale, make sure first your belly and then your chest expand with the incoming air. When you exhale, you want to feel the fall of your chest and then your belly. Try a few of these in- and out-breaths and then introduce counting into the picture. When you inhale, do so slowly and deeply (4 counts) and then exhale completely (6 counts). Do 5 of these extended exhalation breaths.
Step 4. Keep breathing in this way and now allow the positive value word you selected to drift into your mind and focus on it. Say it to yourself silently several times. See the word spelled out in your mind’s eye. Focus on looking at the word and let it rest in your mind. Notice if the word changes visually or if any related memories are triggered by your focus on the word. Attend to the word and your breathing, exhaling for two more counts than inhaling. Inhale for 4: 1, 2, 3, 4. Exhale for 6: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. Just be aware and notice what is happening and any changes in thoughts, emotions and sensations.
Step 5: Open your eyes slowly while continuing to breathe in a relaxed manner. Notice how you’re feeling physically and emotionally. What thoughts do you have? Briefly jot some notes down about these aspects. Compare how you feel now to how you felt before you engaged in the exercise. You might feel calmer, happier, more optimistic, less tense, lighter, more grounded or other positive characteristics.
Now, let’s explore the WHY THIS WORKS so you can use the elements anytime you are thinking about “using”, having cravings, feeling down, stressed out or just want to feel better.
The reason I asked you to hold your hand over your heart is because touch and contact cause your brain’s hypothalamus to trigger the release of oxytocin. Oxytocin, sometimes called the “love” or “cuddle” hormone, is a neuropeptide that is a direct, quick antidote to the stress hormone, cortisol. So rather than being in the fight-flight mode of the sympathetic nervous system you may frequently experience due to the difficult life of addiction, you can instead move to the rest-digest-repair mode of the parasympathetic nervous system with its soothing and relaxing feelings of calm, trust and connection. (http://oxytocincentral.com/2011/01/oxytocin-the-neurochemical-of-everything-good/). The exercise gives you a way to trigger the release of oxytocin to bring the nervous system back into a dynamic balance.
In addition to oxytocin, touch releases your endorphins or body’s painkillers that reduce mental and physical pain allowing you to be happier and more grounded. The Touch Research Institute found that human touch also helps to lessen pain, improve lung function, lower blood glucose levels and even improve the immune system.
Recall that the breathing involved exhaling for longer than you inhaled. The reason I did this is that this pattern triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, the rest and recovery part of the nervous system in charge of the relaxation response (Ravicz, S., Brain Boosters: Seven Ways to Help Your Brain Help Yourself. 2014. Outskirts Press.) Its activation counteracts the sympathetic nervous system’s stress or fight-flight response.
Finally, focusing on and repeating a positive value word (like the ones listed above) during this exercise for five to ten minutes turns on as many as 1,200 stress-reducing genes.
Many addicts lack the skill of self-regulation. Self-dysregulation occurs when self-regulation skills are not developed sufficiently and can be involved in addiction, overeating, compulsive spending and other unhealthy patterns. Behavioral self-regulation is “the ability to act in your long-term best interest, consistent with your deepest values” (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/anger-in-the-age-entitlement/201110/self-regulation). If you’ve ever dreaded getting up and going to work in the morning but convinced yourself to do it anyway after remembering your goals (e.g., a raise, a promotion), values or your basic needs (e.g., food, shelter), you displayed effective behavioral self-regulation. Acting in this way obviously involves making healthy decisions regarding oneself.
Another type of self-regulation is emotional regulation. This involves having some influence or control over emotions. It does not refer to exerting that control in unhealthy ways, such as when we try to suppress, ignore or deny negative emotions. It may seem contradictory, but when we simply acknowledge, allow and accept the presence of negative thoughts, sensations and feelings, they tend to dissolve away. Note that non-judgmentally paying attention to negative feelings does not mean you have to like them; just that you are allowing and noticing their presence. If you have ever calmed yourself down from feeling anxious, stressed or angry, you were using effective emotional self-regulation.
Effective and regular self-regulation requires focus on your deepest values and is a route to feeling better. When someone lives inconsistently with his or her values, the result is negative feelings whereas when one aligns with their values, they feel more empowered and true to themselves. The result of focusing on feelings without regard to values can more likely lead to addictions and compulsions than healthy, positive behavior.
Both addiction and recovery interact with the functioning of the nervous system. The less an individual can self-regulate, the greater the impact of stress and other issues and the greater the likelihood of relapse. The more you practice self-regulation skills and relaxation techniques using the recovery branch of the nervous system, the better you will be able to manage stress, even with the additional pressure of COVID-19.
Use this simple yet powerful exercise whenever you are having negative or using thoughts and cravings or feel tense, angry, anxious, afraid or sad. It works quickly and is an effective way to boost your brain-mind-body health and joy.