“I feel trapped and worried and hurt and sad…and guilty for feeling the way I do.”
“How long will this lying go on? I love him but I don’t trust him.”
“Sometimes I catch myself wondering if his death would just be easier. I hate myself for having thoughts like that. Am I alone?”
Negative emotions are normal
These are just some of the thoughts and feelings parents have shared with us. Do any of these sound familiar?
Even in the best of circumstances, parenting a teen or young adult can be challenging. But when substance use enters the picture, you’re likely to feel overwhelmed by negative emotions like fear, worry and anger which cause distress.
Whether it’s fear of what might happen next, shame associated with the stigma of substance use, resentment that this is happening to your family, guilt that perhaps you could have done something differently as a parent or grief over lost opportunities that you wanted for your child, these emotions are very powerful.
Sometimes the emotions hit us in moments when we are quiet, while others seem to have become as much a part of us as breathing. Regardless of their intensity or frequency, the fallout can be damaging. You may have difficulty focusing at work, be reluctant to leave your home unattended or isolate yourself from friends or family.
Constant negative emotions can also get in the way of happiness, compound our level of stress and worry and ultimately damage our own health. Some people will experience physical ailments such as stomach upsets, migraine headaches and insomnia, while others suffer depressed immune systems resulting in frequent colds and flu.
How to cope
While there is no magic wand to change negative emotions to positive ones, there are ways to lessen the intensity of the emotion and shorten its duration. With practice, you can learn to disrupt and tame negative cycles. Not only will handling your negative emotions in a healthy way improve your overall outlook, but you will also be modeling healthy coping skills – that don’t rely on drugs or alcohol – for your teen or young adult.
Don’t Try to Stop Negative Thoughts.
If you are obsessing about your situation, whatever you do, don’t tell yourself, “I have to stop thinking about this!” Your worry will actually get worse when you try to control your thoughts. Getting mad at yourself for worrying or telling yourself to stop only adds fuel to the negativity fire.
Name The Emotion You’re Feeling.
Instead of trying to shut down your negative feelings, acknowledge and accept them. The mere act of identifying the emotion underlying your negative feelings can begin to lessen its weight. For example, fear is often experienced as a shortness of breath, a rapid heartbeat and a gnawing sensation in the belly, while grief might be experienced as a heaviness of the heart or a lump in the throat.
Acceptance is the basic premise of mindful meditation, a practice that helps reduce stress and anxiety.
What Caused This Feeling?
Our interpretation of thoughts about events, memories, judgments, beliefs, values, expectations and observations give rise to feelings and emotions. This is called self-talk, and it’s how we talk to ourselves, either aloud or silently. What you tell yourself in any given moment can be helpful or result in much of the unnecessary upset or distress you feel.
Let’s take a closer look at an example of how self-talk related to the same situation can result in three different emotions. Suppose you’re meeting friend at a coffee shop, but she is 20 minutes late.
- If you tell yourself, “She’s late. I can’t believe she’s wasting my time like this. I have better things to do than to sit here and cool my heels,” the feeling is one of anger.
- If you tell yourself, “She’s late. I wonder if she got into an accident. I hope she’s okay,” the feeling is worry.
- If you tell yourself, “She’s late. I’ve been so busy that it’s so nice to have a few minutes to myself,” the feeling is one of contentment.
Notice it’s the same situation, but the interpretation of it drives three very different emotions.
Let’s look at an example related to substance use: Suppose you learn that your son relapsed. Your thoughts about this situation might include:
- “I can’t believe he did this again. He promised he would stop doing drugs and now it’s starting all over. How many times will we have to go through this? What if he never gets well? I just can’t stand this anymore.” Based upon what you have told yourself, you experience anger, frustration, fear and hopelessness.
- In looking at the relapse somewhat differently, you could tell yourself, “I know that relapse is often part of the recovery process, and while I’m disappointed, it’s a learning opportunity for both of us. We’ve been through this before and we’ll get through this again.” While you certainly feel concern and disappointment, there is also hope and a sense of resiliency. Again, it’s the same situation, but your self-talk drives the emotions you experience.
Challenge Unhelpful Thinking.
Once you’ve named the emotions and examined the thoughts that led to them, it’s helpful to challenge your thinking. Try asking yourself:
- Am I over-generalizing? Is this really always true?
- Will these thoughts help me solve my problem or reach my goals?
- Is there evidence that supports the beliefs I have? Even if it’s true, do I have to be as angry/upset/fearful as I am?
- Can I think differently about this?
- Who can help me think this through?
- Am I caught up in worrying about the future (asking, “What if this or that happens?”) instead of staying in the present moment?
Asking these questions can help soften your negative emotions and give you the freedom to breathe and think through things in a more useful way.
If you’re having trouble challenging your negative thoughts, try imagining that your friend is feeling the way you feel. What advice would you give him or her? Now think how that advice might apply to you.
It’s important to remember that this takes practice. At first, it might seem like you’re just trying to sugar coat a bad situation, but if you truly reflect on these questions, you may find that things feel a little easier.
When negative thoughts are making you feel agitated and overwhelmed, take a deep breath, and then another. Practicing controlled breathing can help lower the stress response and calm your anxious thoughts.
These are just a few approaches to handling negative emotions. There are many others including distracting yourself with hobbies or work, exercising, meditating, prayer, progressive muscle relaxation, talking to a trusted friend and going to a support group meeting. Many parents have a great deal of difficulty letting go, especially at night. Listening to an audio book or a guided meditation can be helpful if this is the case for you.
You are not alone in experiencing negative thoughts and emotions. No matter what your thoughts are, undoubtedly other parents have had similar thoughts cross their minds. It’s normal.
If you find yourself becoming depressed or extremely anxious, please seek out help from a mental health professional. It may be helpful to find a therapist who specializes in cognitive therapy, a type of therapy that teaches practical ways to cope with persistent and unwanted thoughts.
In the meantime, give yourself a break and try to have compassion and love for yourself.