For those of us struggling with addiction and mental health issues, our behavioral patterns are often our way of trying to escape ourselves, our painful thoughts and emotions, and the things in our lives we don’t feel able to face. Our drug of choice becomes our coping mechanism for the problematic aspects of our lives, our means of distracting ourselves, and self-medicating from our pain. We use avoidance, denial, and emotional suppression to hide from our depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses. Many of us are afraid of confronting the emotional pain that is at the root of our challenges. It feels too overwhelming and too debilitating to face head-on. We think we aren’t strong enough to deal with it. We fall into destructive patterns that allow us to escape our feelings, albeit temporarily, and these patterns can then take over our lives in very damaging ways. One of the healing solutions to this ongoing problem we have of being afraid to face ourselves and our difficulties is to begin to develop more self-awareness. We can challenge ourselves to become more self-aware and more conscious of our daily thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and choices. We can practice being more mindful of every aspect of our lives to heal ourselves. How have we lost our self-awareness, and how can we use it as a healing tool in our recovery?
Lack of self-awareness presents itself is in how our pain manifests in our bodies. We ignore the physical symptoms of our illnesses, our pain, discomfort, tension, and weakness. We sweep how we’re feeling under the rug, ignoring it, and hoping it will go away. We suppress and deny our physical pain. We often don’t realize that our emotions and memories are stored in our bodies as well as minds, and the emotional pain we’re experiencing alter our cells. Unless we consciously work to heal and release all of this stored pain, we continue to suffer from it, often unknowingly. We don’t know why we’re experiencing so much physical pain, and we don’t know how to heal from it. Our chronic pain conditions could be echoes of trauma. Past injuries, accidents, and traumatic events can cause us to have lingering pain long after the incident in question.
To become more aware of our bodies and all of the pain stored within them, we want to start listening to ourselves more. We can practice doing an exercise called a body scan, where we scan our entire bodies to see where the pain exists and then lean into our physical symptoms. As we’re scanning, we can ask ourselves some guiding questions: where am I feeling pain? Where am I feeling tightness, discomfort, tension, or weakness? Where did this sensation come from? What emotions am I storing in my body that are causing these symptoms? What kinds of things trigger my symptoms? When do I feel them come on? What helps me to alleviate them?
In this way, we become more aware of our inner selves by increasing our awareness of our physical bodies. The body holds an incredible amount of wisdom and is always sending us messages to guide us and teach us. The problem is we’re usually ignoring these messages. We’re burying our physical pain with our drugs of choice, opting to numb how we feel rather than confront it. We find it easier to get high, to zone out and forget the difficulties we’re experiencing. As we practice scanning our bodies, we’re reconnecting not only with our physical bodies but with our inner selves, our thoughts, and feelings. We’re fostering a deeper and more meaningful connection with ourselves.
Practicing Breathing Exercises
Breathing exercises are another practice we can implement. We can practice becoming aware of where our pain resides in our bodies and then consciously send our breath to those places. Regulating our breathing helps us to achieve a more profound relaxation and to calm those parts of our bodies affected by our physical and emotional pain. As we’re scanning our bodies and practicing listening to them more, we can also mindfully direct our breathing to those points of tension, pain, and weakness. Our breath brings our self-awareness and our healing attention to our physical and emotional suffering, and it serves as a way to connect our minds, bodies, and spirits. The more we oxygenate, relax, and soothe those ailing parts of ourselves, the more self-aware we are in our recovery journey.
A considerable part of our struggles with mental illness and addiction is the fact that we are often extremely triggered by things, people, events, and memories, but we’re not conscious of how we’re triggered. We haven’t yet developed the self-awareness to have more understanding of our emotions and how they impact our behaviors. For example, when we feel anxious, stressed, or worried, we might instinctively turn to our drug of choice because we’re feeling triggered in the moment. That drug or behavior has become the coping mechanism we’ve learned to rely on over the years. Our lack of self-awareness means we often don’t recognize when these feelings have arisen; we simply use our addictive substance or behavior impulsively. It is what is most familiar and comfortable for us, and so it becomes our default, go-to way of calming and centering ourselves. We might notice that as soon as we use our drug of choice when we smoke a cigarette, for example, we suddenly feel less anxious and on edge. We feel “back to ourselves” and better able to handle our stress. In the moment of being triggered, though, we didn’t necessarily have the self-awareness to talk ourselves through our anxiety, to notice the spike in our stress levels, and to find healthier ways to cope.
An essential element in developing our self-awareness is investigating what our triggers are, what brings them on, when they arise, and how we usually respond to them. Again, we can ask ourselves some exploratory questions to help ourselves increase our awareness around the triggers that keep us attached to and dependent upon our drug of choice. In the moment when we feel triggered to use our drug of choice, we can ask ourselves, “what am I feeling right now? What different emotions are coming up for me, and where might they have come from? Was there a particular event that brought on these feelings? Did a specific memory trigger me to feel this way? Was it something someone said or did, or something that I did, that made me want to use my drug of choice?” We can list how we feel when we’re triggered: anxious, afraid, overwhelmed, confused, angry, sad, ashamed, and we can use the practice of conscious, active self-inventory to help ourselves raise our level of self-awareness.
The more self-aware we are, the less we give in to our triggers and the addictive urges that accompany them. When we’re able to say things to ourselves like, “I’m feeling anxious and sad in this moment,” we’re better able to calm ourselves down and to think through positive, productive ways of handling our emotions that support our recovery and that don’t detract from our well-being. It is often our lack of consciousness around our feelings that makes us rush into using our drug of choice rather than finding a healthier option. When we practice becoming more aware of our emotional triggers, we’re less apt to be so overwhelmed by them that we become paralyzed or controlled by them. When we aren’t mindful of ourselves and our emotions, we often are led by our impulses. We do things without thinking carefully. We don’t practice exercising good judgment. We don’t take inventory of the many possible consequences of our actions. Having more self-awareness helps us to slow down, to think more in-depth, and to be more intentional about our choices and actions. We’re more likely to find a better solution, such as taking a walk or meditating to calm ourselves down, for example, rather than smoking a cigarette. In this way, our increased self-awareness can help us stay the course of our recovery and to offset all of the complicated feelings, regret, shame, and remorse, that come with impulsively giving into our triggers.
With self-awareness comes increased mindfulness. Our lack of mindfulness perpetuates our addictive patterns and our mental health issues because we’re feeding into them, we’re not paying close attention to our needs, and we’re not consciously working to make healthy choices for ourselves. Mindfulness is the practice of becoming more observant and more conscious of everything we do, think and feel, our thoughts and emotions, our behaviors and choices, the way we operate in our lives. When we aren’t mindful, we engage in recurring patterns without thinking about them. We fall into endless cycles of self-destructiveness and self-harm. We often don’t notice what we’re doing, when we’re hurting ourselves, or how we’re bringing about so much pain and turmoil in our lives. We’ve stopped paying attention to ourselves and how we’re living our lives. The more self-aware we are, the more we can apply mindfulness to every aspect of our lives. We can ask ourselves daily, “what thoughts and emotions did I have today that worked against me that were unhealthy and not in my best interest? What choices did I make that detracted from my health and well-being? What habits, behavioral patterns, and lifestyle choices am I perpetuating without thinking about them that are contributing to my unwellness?” The more we check in with ourselves, the more mindful we become. Mindfulness helps us to start proactively, making better decisions for ourselves, and to choose the behaviors that will best serve us.
With more mindfulness, we’re also better able to observe how we’re thinking and feeling so that we can change our thought patterns and emotional habits. When we aren’t mindful and self-aware, we tend to let our thoughts and feelings get the better of us. They overwhelm us, and we feel as if they are beyond our control. We don’t think we’re able to make ourselves feel better when we’re upset, to calm ourselves down when we’re anxious, to lower our stress when they’ve reached worrisome or dangerous levels. We assume that our thoughts and feelings are set in stone and that once they’ve begun, there’s nothing we can do about them and no way to change them. By applying mindfulness to our thoughts, emotions, and beliefs, as well as to how we respond to them, we actually can begin to shift them. Start observing which thought patterns are recurring for you, which thoughts you have most frequently, and how they make you feel. Many of us will notice, for example, that we have an inner critic that makes us feel as though we’re not good enough. We feel convinced that we’re unworthy, inadequate, and inferior to other people, but when we aren’t self-aware, we often don’t know where these persistent feelings are coming from. We have deeply rooted insecurities, fears of failure, fear we won’t measure up to other people. These fears can drive our addictions and mental health issues, by making us feel sad and down on ourselves, and by convincing us that we need our drug of choice to ease the pain we’re feeling.
Because we have yet to develop self-awareness, we don’t realize that these incessant feelings are usually coming from our recurring thought patterns. We belittle ourselves and our accomplishments, talk down to ourselves, speak ill about ourselves to other people, negating our hopes and aspirations, denying our strengths and gifts. We repeat these thought patterns over and over again until they are our belief systems, and these limiting beliefs then make us feel the emotions we’re trying so hard to avoid with our addictions, our sadness, fear, shame, insecurity. With self-awareness, we can turn all of it around. We can stop these persistent thoughts in their tracks and practice giving them less and less of our attention. One helpful practice to implement is to notice which thoughts we’re having that are harmful but then, rather than feeding into them with more and more of our attention and energy, switching focus to new thoughts that are more uplifting and self-empowering. Every time we have a negative thought that tells us we hate ourselves, for example, rather than panicking about it and feeding into the negative energy and self-hatred, we can gently switch focus and tell ourselves instead that we love ourselves, we believe in ourselves, we have faith in ourselves. We can say to ourselves that we want to be self-supporting and nurturing, rather than self-hating and condemning. The more self-aware we become, the more we can take inventory of which thought patterns are limiting us, hurting us, and holding us back. Then we can apply our mental and emotional energy to the new thought patterns we want to instill instead.
Another major part of our lives that many of us don’t have much self-awareness around is our relationships. We aren’t mindful of when they’re harmful to our well-being or when we’re participating in unhealthy relationship dynamics. For example, many of us don’t notice when our relationship has become codependent or imbalanced. We don’t allow ourselves to face the fact that it has become abusive, controlling, or toxic. We ignore the warning signs and suppress our feelings. Our lack of self-awareness can cause us to stay in unhealthy relationships that are detrimental to our safety and our health, and also to our recovery. Many of us eventually come to discover that our relationships are driving forces behind our addictions and mental health issues. We use our drug of choice to escape our painful feelings about our relationships. We develop depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and other mental illnesses because of the pain and trauma we’re enduring in our relationships. Our problematic emotional and behavioral patterns are often related to the unhealthy relationship patterns we can’t seem to extricate ourselves from. Because we lack self-awareness, we don’t realize when our relationships are hurting us. We don’t see when the relationship itself has become addictive, depressing, and traumatic. We don’t see the part we play in the unhealthiness of the relationship, for example, if we are abusive in any way. We aren’t aware of how all the different components of our lives are playing off of each other and can impact one another. Perhaps most importantly, we aren’t aware that we have it in our power to put a stop to these problematic relationship patterns, to free ourselves from them, and to make our recovery our top priority.
To develop more self-awareness in our relationships, we can try incorporating individual therapy and/or couples counseling, family therapy, or group therapy into our recovery programs. We can journal about the health of our relationships, how we’re feeling about them, and how they’re impacting our lives. We can talk to ourselves and our partners more consistently, with more openness and honesty. We can commit to facing our issues, individually and together, rather than trying to avoid them and hide from them. As we become more self-aware and check-in with ourselves more regularly, we take a better inventory of the health of our relationships and how they’re impacting the rest of our lives. We begin to make healthier relationship decisions. We begin to put ourselves and our well-being first. We begin to heal the self-hating parts of ourselves that caused us to stay in unhealthy relationships in the first place, and we begin to take powerful steps toward improving our addictions and mental health issues.
Wondering what step you should take next? Unsure of what services would be the best fit for you? Call Steps Recovery Centers today – 385-250-1701- to talk with one of our trained clinicians. With levels of care from outpatient to residential, we can meet you where you are and help boost your journey to recovery.