Navigating Mental Health Issues in Recovery: Part of Journey

Dealing with co-occurring disorders like depression or PTSD in recovery takes courage. Our message for Mental Health Awareness Month? There's every reason to have hope

May 2, 2023
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Overcoming addiction is a huge achievement. Severe substance use disorder is a disease with no total cure, and treating it usually requires you, the patient, to change major elements of your behavior, your thought patterns, your sources of comfort, your lifestyle and even your relationships. Most people in recovery like the outcome, but it’s very much a mental health challenge that takes great courage to confront.

Make no mistake: Substance use disorder (SUD) is a mental health condition. It’s one that’s particularly pernicious in part because it often strikes in tandem with additional mental health conditions, like posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression. And as laudable as sobriety and recovery are, they aren’t always the final word on mental health. Other difficulties and symptoms can persist.

But if you’re dealing with co-occurring disorders and you’ve beaten back addiction, you should feel confident you can lead a happy and fulfilling life despite other mental health issues.

There are unique challenges in juggling life responsibilities, recovery and ongoing mental health issues, but you can do it, and you shouldn’t hesitate to find help when necessary. Regardless of where you may be in your recovery journey, it’s helpful to learn how to honor your mental health needs.

A good mental health care provider is a must-have, but there are other techniques you can learn that may help you along as well.

What Are Co-Occurring Disorders?

“Co-occurring disorders” is the clinical term for the appearance of two or more substance use and mental health disorders. Handling the complexities of multiple mental health challenges takes practice, tenacity and resources. It helps to have supportive connections who can offer understanding and encouragement.

Examples of Co-Occurring Disorders

A number of mental health conditions co-occur quite frequently with SUD. A person may develop issues with substance use as a result of underlying mental health challenges — or vice versa.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), some of the more common co-occurring disorders are:

When a person doesn’t have adequate tools to manage their stress and mental health issues, they’re increasingly likely to lean on substances for support. More severe mental health symptoms can create more intractable substance problems. It’s insidious and maddening how this works.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse uses this definition for “serious” mental illness: when an adult has had, within the past year, “a diagnosable mental, behavioral or emotional disorder that causes serious functional impairment that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.”

If you’re experiencing this in recovery, it’s essential to get proper care to manage your mental and physical health. Doing so can help you avoid a relapse (sometimes called “recurrence of use”) or any other mental health crises. The bottom line is that being proactive about your health care will help you avoid greater problems and complications in the future.

Do I Need Extra Support for My Mental Health in Recovery?

The first step is a consultation with a mental health professional. If you’re diagnosed with co-occurring disorders (aka a “dual diagnosis“), that will make it easier to pinpoint and eventually manage the underlying mental health disorder(s) at the same time as substance use issues. Getting a clearer picture of what could be contributing to or exacerbating your substance use will help you navigate your experiences with deeper clarity and success.

It’s important to note that this conversation doesn’t always happen immediately in addiction treatment. You can be sober for months or years and still find the need to address struggles you’re having with mental and emotional well-being. That’s not a failure of your recovery. On the contrary, self-understanding is strength.

If mental health symptoms impair your ability to communicate, work, relax, create and enjoy your life, you deserve help with your obstacles. There is every reason to have hope and, today, more access than ever to lasting support and guidance.

As you dive into healing your mind, a lot of information and a lot of feelings may come up, many of them distressing and out of your control. But it’s usually darkest before dawn. As you push through the discomfort, you’ll be able to see the great strides you’ve taken to overcome addiction and manage your mental health better.

Can I Continue To Improve My Mental Health After Initial Treatment?

Think of good mental health as a lifelong journey of learning and managing your wellness each day, even after you’ve overcome active addiction. It can be helpful, therefore, to continue to get support for your mental health, especially if you are new to sobriety.

Discussing your challenges and experiences with a doctor, therapist or trusted recovery support group members is often a part of maintaining your hard-earned sobriety — a normal and healthy part of your recovery journey. This continued support beyond addiction treatment can help you avoid relapse and find lasting happiness in your new life.

Emotional Regulation Is One Way To Do It

One tool that works for many people is emotional regulation. It’s essentially the art of mastering your emotions. Emotions themselves are not bad! But finding healthy ways to process and express them can help you lift some mental health and recovery burdens.

There are plenty of habits and activities that can level up your ability to self-regulate. Learning and practicing emotional regulation techniques can calm your stress response, helping you improve the way you react to distressing situations.

Calming your stress reaction can play a significant role in decreasing the severity and frequency of extreme emotional responses that happen with mental health disorders. Adopting effective stress management techniques can give you a solid foundation for navigating mental health turmoil as you continue to embrace sobriety.

We all have our moments when our emotions get the best of us. And emotional regulation is a practice that takes time. But any progress you make with managing stress more effectively will keep you on the right track to recovery.

Why Not Learn Some Emotional Regulation Techniques?

People use all kinds of tools and methods to regulate their emotions, including drugs and alcohol. In recovery, obviously, that’s not in the cards. As you unlearn unhealthy habits and replace them with healthier behaviors, you may well struggle with the feelings that accompany change.

According to UC Berkeley’s Greater Good magazine, “regulating emotions, especially big, difficult emotions, takes care and practice.” But it’s doable and worthwhile.

Depending on your needs, some emotional regulation techniques may encourage you to be more active and energetic, while other techniques help you rest and recharge. Doing what feels best in each moment will help you manage your stress levels accordingly.

Here are a few emotional regulation techniques to start with. Many are things you probably already enjoy!

Finding ways to calm your mind and body without substances is a necessary step toward lasting recovery. Yes, you’ll experience difficult thoughts and feelings as you learn to embrace the changes that come with sobriety. And yes, it’s perfectly normal to seek professional help if they become overwhelming.

You’re on the road to recovery because you want a life of fulfillment, joy and harmony. If you’ve made the effort to get this far, you owe it to yourself to keep up with your well-being and lead your best life.

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