Being entangled in the life of someone struggling with a Substance Use Disorder can wreak havoc on your ability to make rational decisions, especially when it comes to your loved one’s wellness. Family members often have been so battered by the hurricane-force winds swirling around the active substance user that they become comfortable living in a state of heightened vigilance and reactivity. Instead of having a measured and thoughtful response to a situation, their decisions are governed by emotion, fear, and exhaustion.
The persistent stress and trauma of witnessing a loved one’s active addiction can have a cumulative negative impact on our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and over-activate our Flight or Fight response, which can cause us to make irrational decisions rather than wise and sensible ones. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), stressful situations cause the SNS “to signal the adrenal glands to release hormones called adrenalin and cortisol, hormones that can affect behavioral and cognitive functions — including those related to decision-making.” Not only are there negative effects on the SNS says the APA, but “chronic stress can result in a long-term drain on the body.” Current research also suggests that chronic stress can pave the way for a susceptibility to mental illnesses like anxiety and depression.
Much of the work I do with families is encouraging them to be mindful of when they are in a reactive state, so they can take action to slow things down to a more manageable and thoughtful pace. Think of it as pressing the “Pause” button. Pressing pause could mean practicing a relaxation technique like Square Breathing or using one of the many guided meditation smartphone apps for a five minute respite. Other times it can mean delaying a decision to allow your “wise and reasonable” mind to catch up with your “emotional” mind.
Someone who is in the grip of an addictive disorder can perceive the simplest problem as an emergency, and that sense of urgency can become viral, spreading panic and confusion to the loved ones in their life. My colleague Abby Dean, calls these situations “drive-bys”. “They often appear reasonable but are rarely an actual emergency,” she says. “We tell people to never respond to a drive-by request on your own. Always run it by the team - family members, experienced peers, and trusted treatment professionals.”
People in early recovery learn the acronym HALT to encourage them to check in with their basic needs to avoid relapse, but this is an easy tool anyone can use. If we remember that HALT stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, we can ask ourselves if we are out of balance in any of those areas and take action to correct it. Sometimes the difference between a good and bad decision can be as simple as getting a decent night’s sleep, calling a friend on the phone, or making sure to eat dinner.
Pressing pause or slowing things down can be viewed as a luxury by those used to existing in the eye of the storm where life is lived crisis to crisis. Self-care can be a hard sell to the parents afraid their son or daughter is at risk of a lethal overdose or to the husband whose wife is going to lose her job due to her drinking, but claiming space in our lives for our personal needs is one way of beginning our own journey of recovery. If we step back a bit from the chaos, we know that the better we manage the things we can control, like our physical and emotional wellness, the more likely we are to weather the things we can’t control.