What can you do if alcohol or addictive drugs are the only things that seem to help your anxiety?
What is the alcoholic supposed to do when they first get sober and they are just about in a panic due to anxiety?
How can you deal with real anxiety if you cannot take any medication for it?
How can you cope in that situation?
I can speak to this situation from two places of information: Number one, I suffer from mild anxiety. It is not the kind that is totally incapacitating. For example, I can go to an AA meeting but I am nervous to be there and speaking in front of the group is almost paralyzing. I forced myself to deal with this and go to meetings for over a year straight and it never got any easier.
On the other hand, my anxiety has never been really diagnosed and I do not think of it as being “real” anxiety, not in the way that some people have it. I do not get anxious going to the grocery store or to a crowded theater, for example. So in a sense I do not think that I have suffered from real, full blown anxiety.
In addition to my own experience, I worked in a treatment center for over 5 years, and I had the chance to observe many people in early recovery. Some of these people really suffered from serious anxiety, to the point that they almost could not walk into the rehab center when they arrived. And then for such people to go without their drug of choice and to be forced to face their anxiety, you can imagine that this was quite a challenge. So I learned a lot by watching such examples.
Medicating your fear and anxiety with alcohol
I really believe that alcoholism is driven by fear. The alcoholic drinks in order to cover up their fear.
Of course, none of us wants to admit this. We all make excuses and come up with other reasons as to why we drink, because we don’t want to admit that we are afraid. But in the end we all drink to cover up fear, of one sort or another. Of course this is just my opinion.
Some people have more acute fears than others. And some people just have a real general anxiety, or they have converted their fear into anger for so long that they no longer recognize the fear at all.
There is a physical process that occurs over time when you rely on alcohol to medicate your fear. What you are really doing is teaching your body and your brain to rely on that regular dosing of alcohol in order to regulate the fear that you may experience.
This actually happens on a physical level inside of your body. You have a nervous system and when you experience fear or anxiety your body produces more adrenaline. That is a bit of a medical simplification but you get the general idea. Your body does this as a survival and defense mechanism. The extra adrenaline level gives you the burst of energy that you might need in order to, say, evade a predator.
When you are not nervous or anxious, your body still has a baseline level of adrenaline pumping through you. It is always there. But fear or anxiety will spike that adrenaline level.
So when you wake up in the morning and go to make your breakfast, you have a tiny amount of adrenaline in your system. It is like a baseline level. It is always there, just enough energy to get the job done. To make sure that your nervous system is alive and functioning so that you can get breakfast ready.
When you drink alcohol, what happens on a physical level is that the alcohol suppresses the adrenaline. For whatever reason, drinking the booze lowers the level of this adrenaline. So you can imagine what happens over time if you are getting drunk every single day. If you continue to drink every day, your body is going to try to make up for this, and it will produce more adrenaline in order to get you back to that baseline. Your body has to compensate and make more adrenaline to combat the alcohol so that you have enough energy to get up and make breakfast every day (or to go find more booze, or whatever).
So then imagine what happens next if you suddenly stop drinking alcohol. Cold turkey. You just stop drinking without any help, without going to a medical detox. You just quit suddenly.
What will happen is that your body will continue to go on “compensating” for the alcohol (that is no longer there) to produce all of this extra adrenaline. It is working overtime producing all of this adrenaline and you no longer need it because you stopped putting the depressant into your system. So what happens?
What happens is that you now have an over-abundance of adrenaline in your system, and your anxiety will be through the roof. In addition to that, depending on how physically dependent on the alcohol you were, your body be in serious trouble and you could have seizures or even die from the lack of alcohol. This is why you should always seek out a medical detox if you are serious about quitting alcohol. It is very dangerous and risky to stop drinking on your own.
So over time you train your body to get used to the alcohol. Your physical body has to compensate for all of the alcohol you are putting into it, and this will serve to increase your anxiety in the long run.
This is why an addiction specialist will tell you that drinking is not a good “cure” for anxiety. Because what you are really doing is getting some temporary relief due to the effect of the booze, but then your body starts to fight back against the depressant by creating more adrenaline and boosting your nervous system. In the end this will not serve to lower your anxiety and in fact it will make it worse. Then to top it all off, if and when you finally stop drinking, your body will be in a state where it is producing lots of extra adrenaline for your nervous system and you will experience a huge amount of anxiety during your withdrawal from alcohol.
What happens with your anxiety when you first get clean and sober
If you have real anxiety then it will likely be really bad during your withdrawal from alcohol.
If you go to a medical detox center they will actually attempt to measure your level of anxiety several times each day when you are going through alcohol withdrawal. They will also be trying to measure a number of other alcohol withdrawal symptoms as well. This is so that they know how your body is doing and therefore they know how much medication to give you.
Many people believe that if you go to a medical detox that they will “dope you up” with addictive drugs in order to help you get through withdrawal. This is not my experience based on working in medical detox at an alcohol treatment center. In fact, about 99 percent of clients were treated without using any addictive medications whatsoever. A few people that got dangerously sick from withdrawal had to be given more powerful medication in order to control their alcohol withdrawal. This was a one time dose of medication though and such people still left the rehab center totally clean from all chemicals. They did not get “hooked” on a new drug due to their detox experience.
Most treatment centers will have a full medical detox with medical staff that are attempting to help you. Most rehabs will also give medications, as needed, for anxiety. Again, this does not have to be addictive medications as there are many alternatives out there. Hopefully this information will help to convince you that you should go to rehab!
Learning how to deal with sobriety and finding healthy alternatives
While you are in treatment your goal is to learn how to deal with sobriety.
Another way to look at it is to say that you need to learn how to deal with reality.
And yet another way to say it is that you need to learn how to deal with reality without resorting to your drug of choice.
Overcoming anxiety and fear can be a big part of this. You need to put special effort into this challenge so that you do not use your anxiety as an excuse to relapse.
First of all I think that you should realize that there is this huge tendency in early recovery for everyone to push your towards AA meetings.
I noticed this right away because, to be honest, I was afraid of the meetings. My level of anxiety had me being afraid of the meetings. I was afraid of speaking in them. I was afraid of even being in them to some extent. So I was already nervous and anxious about the meeting thing.
So my idea (this was before I got sober) was that I needed to find a path in recovery that did not depend on these meetings.
Well, what I was learning was that this path did not seem to exist. Everywhere I went, people told me that “AA was the only real path in recovery.” I talked to various counselors, therapists, and so on. Everyone seemed to be telling me that “it was AA or the highway.”
This was not working for me. I got discouraged. I was starting to entertain the idea of getting sober, but I did not want to face my fear of going to AA meetings every day.
It would not have been so bad if you just had to do the meetings for a few weeks or something. But everyone was telling me that I would have to go to AA meetings on a regular basis for the rest of my life. This was a smack in the face. I was afraid of the meetings. I was anxious in the meetings. I did not want to face this fear.
Now there are two possible paths forward in a situation like this. You can either face the fear, or you can find an alternative.
What I am telling you now is that there are alternatives. I know what it is like to be afraid of meetings. And I know what it is like for everyone to be telling you that “you have to go to AA meetings or you are going to die from drinking.” And I am telling you that there is hope. If you have anxiety and you are afraid of the meetings, there is hope.
My hope for you is that you can find your way into recovery without depending on daily meetings. It can be done. I have not gone to a meeting in over a decade. There are other paths in recovery, and I explore them on this website.
That said, you will still probably need serious help in order to get sober. Keep in mind what was said above about your nervous system and how dangerous withdrawal can be. There is a difference between going to rehab for 28 days versus going to AA meetings for the rest of your life. I still believe that everyone can benefit from treatment, even if they do not latch onto the “solution” of daily meeting attendance.
Treating anxiety in recovery is a process and not an event
I have watched many people in early recovery who were going through the withdrawal process.
These people were in a medical detox and then they transitioned into residential treatment. They were learning how to live a sober life by being in rehab.
Some of these people had unrealistic expectations. I think this is a result of having an addiction and being used to instant gratification. When you abuse drugs or alcohol, you are used to getting instant results when you want to change your mood. Take a pill or drink some booze and you can change things pretty quickly. So we come to demand those sort of results in other areas of our lives, and this is not always realistic.
Treating anxiety in recovery is an area where you are not going to get instant and perfect results. Some people just seem to be wired to expect these sort of “perfect” results. If they have pain in their physical body, for example, they want a pain pill that will instantly eliminate all traces of the pain. If their pain goes from a 9 down to a 4, for example, they are not happy at all. They want to have zero pain or they are not happy.
Well, this is not realistic. You have to learn that medicating anxiety (or chronic pain for that matter) is a process and not an event. Part of this learning process is based on the feedback that you get when you experiment and try new things. So that is a big part of it as well, you have to be open to trying new things and taking suggestions in order to medicate your anxiety. If you demand instant results with no effort on your part then you just setting yourself up for failure. In fact, if you do that then you are setting yourself up for relapse. You are building your excuse in advance so that you can justify your relapse later on.
This is the wrong attitude to have. You have to realize that treating your anxiety is a process that may take some time to fully unfold. It is a learning process. You have to be open to experimentation. For example, someone might tell you to exercise, to meditate, and to eliminate caffeine from your diet. Then the next day you complain about your anxiety and say that none of those suggestions worked for you.
I have news for you: You did not give those suggestions a chance! It won’t happen in 24 hours. It is going to take time. It is a learning process. Are you already a guru at meditation, for example? Probably not! So you have something to learn here. You need to learn how to meditate and how to relax. You may need to talk to other people and seek out advice. You may need to try some different things. You must experiment.
Eliminating caffeine takes more than a day for most people. At the very least you will probably have 2 or 3 days of mild withdrawal from caffeine if you are a regular user. You may also want to eliminate chocolate and tea because those both contains stimulants that can be similar to caffeine (namely, theobromine and theophylline).
And if you are not in the habit of exercising every day, then it is going to take weeks or months before your body realizes the full benefits of daily exercise. It won’t happen overnight. And again, this may be an area where you will need to seek out advice and counsel from other people.
So in essence, there are at least two different ways that you can treat anxiety. One, you could take a really addictive medication and keep taking more of it until it practically knocks you out. Or, you can experiment and learn more about yourself using a more holistic approach so that you find a number of different methods that help with your anxiety. Obviously the second path is healthier and more sustainable, especially if you want to stay sober.
How the holistic approach to recovery can help reduce your anxiety symptoms
The holistic approach to recovery is the best way to treat anxiety. This is because there are so many different variables that can help you in overcoming your fear in recovery.
If you look at this problem in a single dimension then you are only limiting yourself. For example, someone may suggest that you use a single therapy technique (maybe a cognition technique) in order to help with your anxiety. So you try this and it seems to help a bit.
Do you stop there?
Of course not. The holistic approach means that you try to treat your anxiety in every aspect, and using every available resource. So you will also tackle the problem physically, incorporating exercise, healthy sleep patterns, nutrition, and maybe even non-addictive medication. And you tackle the problem spiritually, meaning that you can find a strategy for living and a life philosophy that helps to put you at peace. And you may learn how to meditate and relax. And you can learn other things from people in recovery who have also dealt with anxiety, and you can incorporate and experiment with their suggestions as well.
What you don’t want to do is to take the wrong attitude, the attitude that your anxiety should be cured instantly. This is only setting yourself up for failure. There is a path in recovery that is healthy and holistic, and that path can “cure” your anxiety as well. You may need to get help and learn many things from different people. And you may need a doctor who can help you as well (without prescribing you addictive medications).
You can overcome anxiety and fear in recovery. In order to do so you must make a decision, and be willing to learn about yourself and experiment with many options. Do not expect it to be an instant cure or an easy path. But I promise you that it is a path that is well worth traveling, and that the benefits of this holistic life are well worth seeking!
What have you used to overcome anxiety in recovery? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!