How to Deal With Unavoidable Conflicts While Staying Sober

How to Deal With Unavoidable Conflicts While Staying Sober

Learning to handle the negative emotions associated with conflict can be an important part of addiction recovery

Relationships are an important part of life and can add to the fulfillment of addiction recovery. Few relationships are without conflict, however, and the stress of conflict can serve as a relapse trigger. Learning to handle conflict productively is an important recovery skill.

Emotions Involved in Conflict

A conflict is more than a simple disagreement. The human resources department at the University of Wisconsin defines it as a disagreement in which the involved parties perceive a threat to their interests, concerns or needs. Dealing with conflict involves both addressing the underlying issue and managing the emotions that are part of the picture. Training material produced by the University of Colorado notes that emotions such as anger, fear, disappointment, confusion, worry, distrust and frustration can both contribute to and result from conflict. People with a history of substance abuse to drugs like Xanax may have developed a pattern of dealing with emotions by escaping into drug or alcohol use, so learning to handle them while remaining sober is essential. The University of Colorado material suggests the following for managing emotions during a conflict:

  • Identify your own emotions, and attempt to identify the emotions of your opponent.
  • Attempt to identify the source of the feelings that have been raised. They may be caused not just by the current conflict but by past issues as well.
  • Acknowledge and talk about the emotions being experienced by both parties.
  • Use “I-messages” to express your feelings. It helps reduce defensiveness and potential conflict escalation by saying, “I feel frustrated” rather than, “You frustrate me.”
  • Acknowledge the reality and validity of an opponent’s feelings. Active listening is a helpful tool, which involves paying full attention to the words of the other person, then re-phrasing and repeating the message that was received. Neither party has to agree with the other, but full understanding of each other’s point of view and emotional state is essential for true resolution.
  • Do what is necessary to avoid reacting emotionally to the emotional outbursts of another. This may involve temporarily separating yourself from the conflict.
  • Utilize symbolic gestures to express respect and defuse negative emotions.
  • For emotionally charged conflicts, choose a conflict resolution tool that directly addresses the emotional component. The authors suggest transformative mediation, dialogue processes and analytical problem solving.

Conflict and Anger

Of all the emotions potentially raised by conflict, anger can be the most destructive. A publication by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration notes that anger can be addressed by relaxation therapies, which target the emotions, cognitive interventions, which help people identify thoughts behind the emotions and communication skills training, which helps people learn assertiveness and conflict resolution. Specific skills include the following:

  • Relaxation – An anger episode may involve escalation, in which anger builds, explosion, in which anger is expressed aggressively and post-explosion, in which consequences of the explosion are experienced. The goal is to handle a conflict and address the anger before an explosion occurs. In the escalation stage there are physical, behavioral, emotional and cognitive cues that indicate anger is building. Physical cues include muscle tension, feeling flushed or hot and an increased heartbeat; all of which indicate that the body’s stress response has been activated.

The body is equipped with a relaxation response that counteracts the stress response. There are tools for initiating the relaxation response including deep-breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. Deep breathing includes becoming aware of and focusing on breaths entering and leaving the body. Taking a deep breath, holding it for a second and then slowly exhaling can interrupt the stress response. Relaxation can also be enhanced by focusing on tensing and then releasing the tension in isolated muscles.

  • Cognitive Intervention – The fact that two people can have very different responses to the same experience illustrates that it is not simply an event that triggers anger but the interpretation of that event. Various factors can contribute to interpretation. Often a thought or belief that underlies an anger episode is one that contains the words should or must. For example people who believe that they should always be in control are likely to become angry when this is not possible. People who believe they must always be treated fairly are likely to become angrier when treated unfairly than those without this belief.

Cognitive interventions involve examining the thoughts and beliefs behind an episode of anger and evaluating them objectively. Unhelpful thoughts can be disputed and replaced by others such as, “It is not possible to control every situation” or, “Unfortunately no one is always treated fairly.” An alternative to disputing thoughts is to simply stop them by focusing on other things.

  • Communication skills – People may respond to anger by becoming aggressive, passive or assertive. Assertiveness involves being respectful of others while also valuing and guarding your own rights and is generally the most helpful response. One way to act assertively is to work through the Conflict Resolution Model. This involves first identifying the problem, its associated feelings and its impact. The next step is to decide whether the conflict is important enough to discuss. If the answer to that question is positive, a time can be set to communicate about the issue. This can involve describing the conflict and the feelings and impact associated with it and then asking for resolution. It is wise to express the way in which you would like the conflict resolved while also being open to the idea of compromise.

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