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The Link between Addiction and Emotional Immaturity



emotional immaturity

Physical maturity is pretty easy to spot; you can maybe guess someone’s age just from looking at them. Emotional immaturity on the other hand is different, and way more complex.

It’s to do the way we approach and deal with life and the stressors that come with it. Emotional immaturity is the inability to process and cope with emotions in a healthy way, so one may be able to spot it through recognising certain behaviours in others.

Emotional immaturity in substance addiction recovery is highly common, as individuals who are struggling with substance abuse often find it difficult to deal with, or convey their emotions.

How Does Emotional Immaturity Relate To Addiction?

A lot of people who drink alcohol use it as an emotional crutch; to drown out the inner critic and wash away the unpleasant feelings. They haven’t developed sufficient strategies to deal with them.

People who are emotionally immature recognise alcohol is a ‘quick fix’ and so proceed to use the substance as a way to cope. If someone wants alter their mood, to change the way they feel, they will drink – so it’s not surprising people become addicted to alcohol. [1]

What Causes Emotional Immaturity?

According to the Scholar’s Research Library, there are various ways in which those who are addicted to substances become emotionally immature. They are listed below: [2]

In scientific terms, becoming addicted to alcohol is to do with our neurological reward system, particularly effecting the neurotransmitter that is dopamine which is responsible for when we feel relaxed and happy.

It therefore disrupts and stunts other part of the brain out of it’s normal development. The University Of Georgia conducted a study whereby they were able to visibly monitor how substance abuse affected the brain.

It clearly showed how substance abuse stunted the brain so that it wouldn’t develop past it’s current state.

To mature emotionally you need to work through the emotions because not acknowledging them means they become suppressed. This allows them to burrow and fester ultimately coming to the forefront in a usually distressing or unhelpful way.

Not only that, the person doesn’t develop any strategies or skills to overcome these emotions. The thing is about emotions though, you can’t just switch them off, that is not how they work. One may think they’ve drank them away but they will come back.

Those who fear the responsibilities that come with growing up will carry on with their college/university drinking in adulthood. This makes them unable to adapt and develop skills that will help them through life.

Why Those Struggling With Addiction Might Appear Childish?

When someone grows with an addiction they do so with emotional dysregulation – this is the inability to process and react to events in a healthy manner. It then falls into automated parts of the brain which means they automatically respond to stresses or unpleasant emotions in an emotionally dysregulated way.

Our brain is wired to avoid stress and take the easiest path, to opt for the ‘quick fix’– and therefore steers away from forming new ones with goals and regulated thinking. The thing is, those with alcohol addiction to not want to behave this way. Why would anyone want to behave in a way that is quite traumatic for themselves and others?

But it is the prolonged use of alcohol as a crutch that has disrupted the natural and healthy neurological functions of the brain that has led them to be unable to mature. They may have physically matured, but emotionally, they have not. [3]

A person addicted to alcohol lives primarily in the amygdala. The amygdala is an evolutionary primitive part of the brain which triggered bodily responses to stress and those with problem drinking are usually drinking to self-medicate or alleviate this stress.  So, a person withdrawing from alcohol experiences the stress they were drinking to avoid, probably made worse due to the unpleasant physical symptoms of withdrawal itself.

This is where emotional maturity and emotional sobriety comes is so important; the crucial part of recovery is dealing with this stress and knowing they can get through each obstacle they face.

Symptoms of Emotional Immaturity

Everyone is capable of acting silly or remotely childish at some point in their lives – but emotional immaturity ranges further from getting a little giddy with friends, or sulking if they don’t get their own way.

Signs to look out for include:

  • Learned helplessness
  • Pessimism
  • Low self-esteem
  • Unrealistically high expectations
  • Severe mood swings
  • Substance abuse (due to inability to control their own behaviour)
  • Difficulty coping with life’s everyday challenges
  • Prone to suffering more from stress
  • Lack meaningful relationships (normally appearing too needy or overbearing)
  • An inability to live in the ‘now’ as they are worried constantly about the past and future
  • Taking things out on others
  • Become angry or lose patience very easily

emotional maturity

Dimensions of Emotional Maturity

You might be thinking “how would an emotionally mature person look” in comparison? Below we discuss the most common indicators that someone is emotionally mature: [4]

1. The ability to modulate emotional responses

An emotional outburst may last a long while and it may take a long time for the person to calm down and return to almost rational thinking. It’s a very all-or-nothing emotional response.

2. The ability to tolerate frustration

This ties in with self-control – knowing what level of frustration is appropriate or even healthy in response to a certain event or situation.

3. The ability to delay gratification

Again, this is how well a person can exercise self-control. It also has to do with how well they can plan and set goals for the future and await those goals to come to fruition. Those who are emotionally immature tend to give up if they don’t feel some sort of gratification immediately.

4. The ability to control impulses

Someone who is emotionally mature will be able to differentiate between wanting to do something and knowing that actually carrying out the act may have negative consequences and so choosing not to. The emotionally immature person will most likely ignore or not even consider any consequences.

5. The ability to be reliable and accountable

Those suffering from addiction, as mentioned before, usually lack self-awareness – a vital requirement for checking in on themselves and holding themselves responsible and accountable for their actions.

Why Is Emotional Immaturity in Addiction Dangerous?

A person is more likely to relapse when they are emotionally immature. This is because they have not developed healthy coping strategies that will enable them to get through a stressful or hard time – they have instead used alcohol. It is important that one realises that giving up drinking will not magically fix everything else in their life – as much as it is a huge achievement, it is just step one on the road of recovery, maturing themselves emotionally is the big thing they have to conquer. [5]

When people are emotionally immature, they tend not to have great interpersonal relationships, therefore usually lacking any sort of support network. A support network and an authentic connection with others is vital and an imperative part of recovery.

People are emotionally immature will feel as though sobriety is imprisonment to a life sober, instead of working through issues to enable them to thrive and have a more enriched life.

Why is Emotional Maturity Necessary?

Giving up drinking is not enough, because to abstain from alcohol for a prolonged period requires a complete lifestyle change; a new pattern of thinking and healthier coping mechanisms to copy and process emotions. Without self-awareness one cannot take a look at their own actions and acknowledge how their behaviour may be problematic and the things they may need to change.

What Is Emotional Sobriety?

Emotional sobriety is the intangible sobriety that you don’t see, it’s your (hence the term) emotions. You know when you are physically sober because you are not physically consuming the drink, you are abstaining.

You may be abstaining but still not accepting mentally that you will have to remain sober. Being physically sober without being mentally sober means that you feel as though sobriety is a prison sentence, therefore maybe having a feeling of merely existing instead of living, without alcohol. [6]

Some of the most common signs of emotional sobriety include:

  • Contemplation and moral inventory-taking involving their addiction.
  • Forgiveness of self for addictive behaviours.
  • Ability to take responsibility for poor choices made.
  • Willingness to make amends with those who were negatively affected by the recovering alcoholic’s addiction.
  • Belief that there is a better life ahead

How To Achieve Emotional Sobriety

Emotional sobriety can be attained through following the 12 Steps of the Alcoholics Anonymous programmes. But below we have listed some pragmatic steps for you to work on while you journey towards recovery:

  • Let go of all addictionsnot merely replace one with another
  • Face life’s challenges head onknow that you will overcome and get through them
  • Have realistic expectations your problems won’t all be solved at once
  • Practice mindfulnesschanging thinking patterns and controlling your thoughts
  • Keep a journalthis is a great way of keeping in check with your emotions and talking them through with yourself. Sometimes things seem a lot simpler once they’re written down
  • Surround yourself with emotionally mature people you are who you surround yourself with. You may slip into old ways if in the company of those who still act in that way
  • Help others It takes your focus off yourself and onto others
  • Support groups – such as AA provide a space where you can join likeminded people and also a 12-step programme to help you on the road to recovery

Emotional sobriety requires emotional maturity and that’s how they fit together. If a person is not emotionally sober then they will present those symptoms of a person who has not matured emotionally; anger, bitterness, resentment, fear.

The positive is that anyone, provided they want to, can become self-aware, emotionally mature and in turn emotionally sober. It just takes a bit of work to get there.

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References

[1] https://silo.tips/download/comparison-of-attachment-styles-and-emotional-maturity-between-opiate-addicts-an

[2] https://blogs.psychcentral.com/sex-addiction/2013/06/gaining-emotional-maturity-is-key-to-addiction-recovery/

[3] https://archives.drugabuse.gov/sites/default/files/monograph30.pdf

[4] https://www.psypost.org/2019/09/people-with-lower-emotional-intelligence-are-more-likely-to-hold-right-wing-views-study-finds-54369

[5] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/j.2164-4918.1957.tb01970.x

[6] https://www.nature.com/articles/npp2017251

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