While the early months of the alcohol recovery timeline can bring about many positive changes, they can also feel like an emotional rollercoaster. Your body and brain are healing, and without the numbing qualities of alcohol, it’s natural for intense emotions to arise, including anger. As a therapist on the Monument platform, I often work with my patients to identify the root cause of their anger, and establish healthier ways to process intense emotions in sobriety.
Does quitting drinking make you angry?
There are multiple reasons why you may experience increased feelings of anger after quitting alcohol – let’s explore three of the most common.
- The ‘reawakening’ of emotions: With extended periods of alcohol use, drinking can have a numbing effect on your emotions. Then, when alcohol is removed from the equation, those deep-seated emotions rise to the surface, and can feel especially foreign, intense, and hard to manage.
- Underlying anger issues: Some people may have also had pre-existing anger issues that led them to develop unhealthy drinking patterns. Many address uncomfortable emotions by self-medicating with alcohol, and drinking to soothe anger is no different. In early sobriety, those underlying anger issues can feel even more intense.
- The unique challenges of sobriety: Anger can manifest in early sobriety for a variety of reasons directly related to the challenges of navigating alcohol use disorder, past alcohol use, and the healing process. We’ll explore these reasons in greater detail.
It’s important to distinguish that stopping drinking doesn’t cause intense emotions like anger to arise. Instead, getting sober takes away the numbing effect of alcohol, allowing these naturally occurring feelings to resurface all at once. This initial emotional reaction can feel overwhelming, but is typically only temporary with the right support.
The exact sources of anger vary for each individual. Whatever the cause, it’s a vital part of the sobriety journey to become aware of your anger and its sources, and develop new ways to manage it. Anger can be one of the most triggering emotions, so it’s important to create a strong plan for handling feelings of anger when they do arise in early sobriety. Ultimately, finding ways to truly process anger will allow it to become less intense, less frequent, and more manageable over time.
Reasons you may feel anger in early sobriety
I often remind my patients that the initial period of sobriety includes a grieving process. This could mean grieving your relationship with alcohol, grieving the routines you are leaving behind, and saying goodbye (at least at first) to people, places, and things that challenge your sobriety or moderation goals. The first traditional stage of grief is denial and isolation. Once someone moves through these feelings, a period of anger often emerges. Some of the most common types of anger in early sobriety include:
- Anger at oneself for past drinking habits and actions taken while under the influence. Shame and guilt surrounding past events can often morph into anger. Feeling regretful can cause us to self-isolate or get defensive. If our past drinking habits have hurt those around us, we might be angry with ourselves, and act with anger towards others as a result.
- Anger from not feeling ‘normal.’ Alcohol use disorder is a medical condition that affects some individuals and not others. In early recovery, it’s not uncommon to feel a sense of unfairness in relation to others appearing to be able to enjoy drinking, while AUD necessitates moderation or abstinence. There may also be an initial frustration around the idea of socializing while sober, and the feeling that events won’t be the same without alcohol.
Navigating the non-linear treatment journey
- Anger from having to face consequences. It’s common to feel overwhelmed by having to suddenly face responsibilities, consequences, and disrupted relationships after becoming sober. Navigating these responsibilities while also working on other aspects of sobriety, like managing cravings, can feel like a lot to handle, and can cause feelings of anger.
- Anger as a reaction to trauma. Alcohol, trauma, and PTSD can be closely related. Early sobriety can create a newfound awareness of preexisting resentment and anger related to past traumatic events. While drinking may have been numbing these feelings before, they can appear more intensely and clearly after quitting alcohol. However, this also opens the opportunity to address and heal from these events.
- Anger after experiencing a setback. Anger is a very common reaction to experiencing a setback in the recovery journey. This can include anger at oneself for returning to drinking, or using anger to mask worries about being able to achieve our goals. This can be seen in negative self-statements, blaming of others, and denying support in trying to re-establish sobriety.
If any of these sources of anger resonated with you, you’re not alone. Experiencing anger throughout the various challenges of early sobriety is incredibly normal and valid. It doesn’t mean you can’t still make meaningful progress and reach your moderation or sobriety goal. Once you’re able to recognize and accept where your anger is coming from, you can begin to process it in healthy ways.
How to deal with anger in your sobriety journey
Early recovery is a period of transformation and skill building. This stage often includes changing your routine, managing cravings, and repairing relationships. Throughout these changes, learning how to manage anger more effectively is essential. The good news is, many of the same tools that will support your sobriety will also help you process and cope with anger. The following are some tips on handling anger as you work towards your goals.
Develop healthy coping skills
A key component of managing anger in sobriety is practicing coping skills. Healthy coping skills can help you work through uncomfortable emotions without turning to alcohol or expressing anger in unhealthy ways. Breathing exercises, journaling, and other distress tolerance skills can help you calm down long enough to be able to express anger in a more effective manner. Mindfulness techniques are also highly beneficial for managing emotions and remaining in the present. Lastly, learning to set boundaries with others can minimize triggers, and allow you to process anger on your own, instead of taking it out on others. Looking for guidance on how to develop new coping skills? Working with a specialized therapist can arm you with tips and tools to make a change.
Recognize what you can and can’t control
Oftentimes, anger is rooted in attempts to control our circumstances and other people. When a situation doesn’t match up with our preconceived expectations, we can get easily frustrated. Becoming angry can feel like a way to regain control, because it’s an emotion in our power. To avoid reacting with anger, it’s important to identify what is and isn’t in our control, and manage our expectations accordingly. Acceptance can help alleviate feelings of disappointment and anger.
Develop a strong support system
Anger is often thought of as a “cover-up” emotion. Speaking with another person can help you to determine what other emotions may be lying under the surface. These ‘masked emotions’ may include hurt, fear, loneliness, anxiety, and grief. Learning to identify what you’re actually feeling is key to moving past anger, and expressing yourself to others can help you get there. Seek out a strong support system that is willing to give you honest feedback. This can include a therapist, support groups, or people in your everyday life. These support people can help you see your part in situations, identify emotions, and hold you accountable to healthier coping skills.
Learn more about Post-Acute Withdrawal symptoms
Post Acute Withdrawal (or PAWS) is a very common set of symptoms that occur after you stop drinking or significantly reduce your alcohol consumption. Higher stress levels, irritability, and sleep issues are three common symptoms of PAWS that directly relate to increased anger issues. Learning more about the different types of alcohol withdrawal can help illuminate why these symptoms are occurring and how to manage them. Speaking with a physician can also help address these uncomfortable feelings and find relief.
If you believe you might be experiencing acute alcohol withdrawal, please contact your healthcare provider immediately and visit https://findtreatment.gov/ to find a location to get supervised detox near you. If this is a medical emergency, call 911.
Sober Anger Management Techniques
In addition to the tips above, there are several techniques that can help you address feelings of anger in the moment they arise. Practicing an anger management technique can help you recognize when you’re angry and gain a sense of control before taking action.
Label your anger
An effective way to address anger is to first acknowledge it fully. You can do this by saying to yourself “I’m feeling angry right now” or “anger is present.” You can also notice how the anger is manifesting in your body. Labeling and allowing yourself to feel anger can actually help reduce its initial intensity.
Count to ten
This technique is simple yet effective for when anger starts to feel overwhelming. Count to ten slowly in your head. This will give your brain time to regain its rational thinking and assess the full situation before reacting. You can always count again if you don’t feel ready to move forward yet.
Practice deep breathing
There are several relaxing breathing techniques that can help calm your nervous system when a burst of anger arises. One of the most popular is called four square breathing:
- Breathe in for 4 seconds
- Hold for 4 seconds
- Breathe out for 4 seconds
- Hold for 4 seconds
Engage your senses
Another way to address anger right away is to use your five senses to help you get out of your head and get grounded in the present moment. This means pausing and intentionally observing the sights, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes of the environment around you. Once you’ve immersed yourself by using your senses, you’ll be more likely to return to the situation with a clear head.
Movement can be a powerful antidote to anger. This could include going to the gym or on a run, or simply excusing yourself from a situation to go for a light walk or to do a few quick exercises. Getting active can help release the physical tension that comes with anger, as well as give you a boost in endorphins.
Practice self-care and compassion
Remember that it took time for you to get to this point in your life and it will take time to learn these new skills. Practice grace and self-compassion in the process. This often looks like quality self-care. That means more than treating ourselves with massages and ice cream. It means being attentive to our own needs and caring for ourselves throughout each day. The acronym H.A.L.T. can be a helpful reminder:
Hunger is often an underlying issue that exacerbates our emotions. Continuing to nourish your body can significantly lessen the desire to use unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as acting out or drinking alcohol.
As we’ve discussed, simply acknowledging and allowing room for anger to be understood and addressed is the best way to move on from it. When you check in on your anger levels, you can better assess what your needs are.
Feeling lonely can make us more likely to slip into old patterns. Once you identify you’re feeling lonely, you can take steps to get connected, whether it be calling a friend or joining a support group.
A common trigger for anger and alcohol cravings is exhaustion. Having good sleep hygiene, making boundaries with work, and remembering to pace yourself are all effective ways to prevent burn out.
If you start to experience any of these emotions, that can act as a key signal from your body that it’s time to practice some basic self-care. Exercise is a good way to release pent up frustrations as well. You may also want to monitor your sugar intake because sugar highs and lows can increase irritability. It’s also important to be patient with yourself. Sobriety is a marathon, not a sprint.
There’s no shame in experiencing anger, in fact it’s often a normal part of the early recovery process. What matters most is how you manage these emotions. Left unchecked, anger can make it especially difficult to maintain sobriety or moderation. However, there’s a whole network of resources and community ready to help you through these feelings and support you on your journey. We each hold the ability to work with anger and grow from it in incredible ways.