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Control Freak: How to Stop Trying to Change Your World and Change Yourself Instead

Everyone likes to feel in control of their lives. But for those who are addicted, the desire to exert control over outer situations–relationships, family rules, schedules and other daily interactions can sometimes become excessive.

If a person feels that they have lost control of themselves and their substance use, they often shift their sphere of control to other areas of their life. Feeling out of control increases anxiety, and becoming a “control freak” is one way an addict may attempt to reduce this anxiety. Exerting outward control may also be an attempt to manage other uncomfortable emotions, such as depression, low self-esteem or feelings of powerlessness.

Brain Biology vs. Behavior

Research suggests that people who abuse substances may be predisposed to do so because they have certain brain abnormalities that reduce their ability for impulse control. These abnormalities can cause a person to be less able to exert self-restraint when it comes to substance use (Science; February 2012: Vol. 335).

Research suggests that people who abuse substances may be predisposed to do so because they have certain brain abnormalities that reduce their ability for impulse control.-Rita MiliosOnce addicted, areas of the brain involved in self-control may be further affected by abnormal surges of dopamine flooding the brain’s limbic system, which controls emotion and behavior. If attempts to control outward circumstances begin to regularly fail, a substance abuser may come to expect that all future attempts to exert control in their lives, including controlling their substance use, are likely to fail as well. They develop a state of mind called learned helplessness and they stop trying to change their drug-using behaviors because they believe it is no longer possible to do so (even though this may not be true).

Yet, we know that emotional regulation is possible, even when learned helplessness has taken hold. Emotional regulation involves taking charge of our thoughts and feelings. It requires us to consciously analyze our thoughts and feelings and make appropriate adjustments when needed, in order to generate a more positive emotional response than would result from giving free reign to our automatic, negative thoughts. Emotional regulation starts with recognizing what is under our control and what is not, so that we do not unduly discourage ourselves by attempting to control people and situations that are not within our power to control in the first place. We assess for situations we can control, and then use the following strategies to better manage them.

Emotional Regulation: Learning to Control Yourself, Not Your World

Emotional regulation involves several different stages, any or all of which can be the focus of a conscious intervention, resulting in the disruption of an automatic (subconsciously generated) emotional response.

The stages go like this:

  • You first direct your attention to a situation.
  • Next, your brain assesses or appraises the situation. (Is it scary? Annoying? Painful?)
  • Based on the assessment, you are quickly presented with an automatic emotional response, which precipitates a behavioral response.

The problem is that these emotional responses are most often pre-programmed, subconscious reactions, which are, by default, skewed toward the negative. (Our biological fight or flight warning system predisposes our subconscious compass to point toward negativity.) But by consciously changing a thought or attitude anywhere in the automatic response cycle, we can decide to see it from a more positive, helpful viewpoint, and therefore a make more positive behavioral choice. Below are some proven strategies for encouraging the development of emotional regulation within yourself:

  • Modify the SituationIf a situation is causing you emotional distress, change it. For example, if someone is speaking to you and you find yourself becoming uncomfortable, discontinue the conversation and move to a new location. Then, without duress, you can better assess the situation and decide if it is appropriate for you to resume the interaction or not.
  • Distract YourselfSometimes we focus so intensely on a problem or an issue that it becomes emotionally overwhelming, and we lose our ability to think clearly. This is a good time to employ a mental distraction. Intentionally divert your attention and think about something less stressful. Highly emotional or painful information is especially difficult to process, and you will not make the best decisions when your mind is overwhelmed by such thoughts. So first allow your mind to settle. When you go back to the issue, you may find that you can look at it with less emotion and more logic, and you will be more likely to come up with a solution.
  • Put it Out of Your MindSometimes distraction is not enough. You need even more of a break. You don’t just need to put an issue or problem aside, you need to put it out of your mind altogether. Admittedly, this is not so easy to do when you are worried or fearful. But with practice, you will find that you can intentionally “change your mental channel.” I suggest to my clients that they have a pre-determined positive “replacement thought” (or better still, a detailed visualization of a positive future circumstance) that they can “take off the shelf” each time they need to replace a worry thought or other distressing thought. When you are in the midst of anxiety-provoking worry or fearful thoughts, it is not the time to try to be thinking up an appropriate replacement thought. So have one ready and waiting, and use the same replacement thought consistently every time. The consistency makes the switch easier to facilitate, and it will also help your mind learn what your intentions (which are really mental instructions) are.
  • Re-Appraise or Re-FrameYou are likely familiar with the “Is the glass half full or half empty?” question. This is a simple way of describing a psychological concept called reframing. When we reframe a situation, we simply look at it from a different viewpoint. In truth, the glass is both half empty and half full. We get to decide which way we choose to describe it, and in that choice lies our emotional response to a given situation. Circumstances and situations, in reality, are emotion-neutral. It is our evaluation or appraisal of them that determines how we feel about them. So if you want to feel better, more positive or more hopeful, simply choose to take the glass half full approach. The situation will remain constant, however you view it. But with a half full viewpoint, you will feel better about it, rather than worse.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance abuse, call American Addiction Centers today at for guidance on receiving the treatment you deserve. We are on the line 24/7. Don’t wait.

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