One of the most important things that you can do in alcoholism recovery is to get emotionally balanced and reduce your stress level.
People who have relapsed during their journey are almost always experiencing a high level of stress in some way. Reducing your stress should be a fundamental idea in everyone’s recovery journey. But the question is, how do we go about doing this?
The fallacy that quitting drinking will increase your stress is part of your denial
First of all, many alcoholics believe that drinking itself relieves stress for them.
They falsely believe that if they take away the alcohol and the drugs that their stress level will go through the roof. Because now, they argue, they have to deal with reality without the “help” that their drug of choice gives them.
This is actually completely the opposite because alcoholism will increase their stress in the long run. One of the ways that this happens is because of the physical response that the body has when it goes through the process of being drunk and then sobering up, which inevitably has to happen at some point. What is actually happening is that you are suppressing the body’s nervous system when you drink a lot of alcohol, and then when you (inevitably) take away the alcohol at some point and stop drinking your body overcompensates in the other direction.
So while you are heavily drinking the body has to use lots of adrenaline to keep itself functioning properly. Then when the alcohol is removed the extra adrenaline is still there and the body is overly excited and jumpy. This is a basic explanation of why people going through detox can have seizures. Their body is trying to overcompensate and keep itself functional in spite of the onslaught of alcohol that you keep feeding it.
And this happens to everyone who is a heavy drinker. You may try to stay drunk for your entire life, but it is not going to happen in the long run. There are always going to be periods of down time when you are not drinking constantly. Some people end up in jail. Some people get so sick at some point that their body forces them to sleep for a while and therefore they are not drinking. Some people get so sick that they have to stop temporarily.
So even if it is a very heavy drinker who almost never stops drinking, they will still go through periods of time, however brief, when their body shuts down and they are forced to stop temporarily. And during these times it is extremely stressful on the body.
Now there is also the idea that drinking alcohol can reduce your stress from a mental perspective. This may be true in the beginning when you first start drinking because getting intoxicated might actually distract you from whatever is currently creating anxiety in your life.
But just ask any alcoholic who has been drinking for years or decades and they will tell you that their drinking itself has become a major source of anxiety.
Isn’t that silly? So the alcoholic used to drink in order to cope with their problems and deal with life. But after a certain point the alcoholism is clearly their biggest problem and that is the thing that actually stresses them out the most. So they are stressed out about their drinking problem and so they drink more in order to deal with that stress. I know that this may sound like an insane circle of logic to a “normal” person but that is absolutely what happens in the mind of the alcoholic. Alcoholism itself becomes an excuse and a reason to self medicate.
So there are many struggling alcoholics and drug addicts who believe that their stress level will go up if they suddenly quit their drug of choice. This is a typical fear response but it is also wrong. The initial detox may be difficult (though you can get help for that) and after that your stress level will go down significantly in sobriety. Of course that assumes that you are doing the work in recovery and finding new days with deal with life and cope with reality.
Finding new ways to deal with reality instead of self medicating
When you get clean and sober you are accepting reality again.
In the past you chose to escape reality instead. That was your decision based on using your drug of choice.
When you choose recovery you are choosing to face reality again and all of the issues that come along with doing so. You are making a choice to no longer medicate yourself and avoid reality.
So in order to do this you need to be able to deal with reality without running away from it.
I would say that there are a few key ideas to help people in order to accomplish this:
1) Finding support systems in early recovery that you can lean on for help.
2) Doing the work in recovery as far as your internal issues. Reducing anger, guilt, shame, fear, self pity, and so on. Giving yourself less of a reason internally to self medicate.
3) Doing the work in recovery as far as your external circumstances. Changing the people, places, and things that may trigger you in the external world. Giving yourself less of a reason externally to self medicate.
4) Pushing yourself to improve your life every day on a consistent basis.
5) Establishing a daily practice and a set of positive habits that allows you to lower your stress level consistently.
These are powerful ideas that I have tested out in my own recovery journey.
When I first got clean and sober I needed a lot of help. I went to treatment and I actually ended up living in a long term sobriety house. So right away I started to see the value in having a support system in place to help me to deal with reality.
So when things got tough I could ask questions. When recovery became difficult I could ask for advice rather than running away from myself and self medicating. When I wanted to run and hide from reality the people in my support system told me to “just hold on.” And it worked.
Then I started “doing the work” in recovery that was necessary for me to live comfortably in my own skin. There were all sorts of internal problems going on inside of my little brain when I first got sober. Those problems were the main reasons that I self medicated all the time. I was running certain scripts in my head, thought patterns, that helped me to justify my drinking every day.
I had to change those scripts. I had to change those thought patterns so that I would stop self destructing.
For example, I used to engage in self pity on regular basis in order to justify my drinking. I would feel sorry for myself on purpose in order to feel better about the fact that I was running away from reality by hitting the bottle every day.
When I got clean and sober my brain was still running this script. It was still playing out the idea of self pity and finding ways that I could feel sorry for myself. And because I was now trying to avoid alcohol and turn my life around, I quickly figured out that the self pity script was no longer helping me. It was just getting in the way of sobriety. The only purpose of self pity was to justify my drinking.
So it had to go. I had to figure out how to eliminate self pity. And I did not know how to do that at first.
So I asked some questions. I asked for help. I spoke to my support system. I talked with other people in recovery who had overcome self pity, anger, fears, and resentments. How did they do it? What process did they use? Then I took that information that they gave me and I applied it to my own situation.
So in the end I made a deal with myself which was really a commitment. I made a promise to myself not to engage in self pity any more, ever. As soon as I caught myself feeling sorry for myself I would shut it down immediately. That was my commitment.
Second of all I had to come up with a way to notice this was happening. So I had to increase my awareness. And one thing that I did was to start meditating every day. I believe that the meditation sessions made me more aware of my own thoughts so that I could better notice when I was slipping into self pity mode. If you can’t catch yourself doing it then there is no way to stop it. So you have to raise your awareness somehow. I did this with meditation and through conscious effort and commitment. So I became more vigilant as far as “watching my thoughts” in recovery. I was watching my brain to see if it tried to start feeling sorry for itself.
Third I had to have an action plan to overcome the feelings that went along with self pity. I learned that the way to do this was to practice gratitude.
So how does that work? How does gratitude overcome self pity?
Well first of all I had to do it on a daily basis. I couldn’t just practice gratitude on Tuesdays and Thursdays and expect for it to be much help. It had to be a daily practice, because self pity could pop up at any given time in my life. So I needed a daily defense.
So I started to incorporate gratitude into all of my existence, into my daily prayers, and I started making gratitude lists.
You may think it is redundant to make a gratitude list every day of your life. But then if you actually do it every day then your brain will get faster and faster at coming up with reasons to be grateful. This is very powerful because then you will be able to find gratitude even in your darkest moments. Which is exactly the point. You can’t get stronger if you don’t practice.
So that was my three part approach to eliminating self pity and figuring out how to reduce my own stress level in recovery a great deal. First I had to identify the problem and make a decision to eliminate it. Then I had to commit to that decision. Then I had to take action. And before I could take action I had to talk to people and get some guidance so that I might know the solution.
This was a process but it was made easier by the fact that I had a support system around me. This is another reason why I think you need support in early recovery, so that they can teach you things. Without this knowledge you may not know how to overcome your problems in recovery.
Two kinds of work in recovery: internal and external
What stresses you out in life? What stresses people out in recovery?
Lots of things. Let’s divide them into two groups for now:
1) Internal things like stress, fear, anger, guilt, shame, self pity, etc.
2) External circumstances like relationships, your job, your finances, your living situation, etc.
Things that stress you out may be internal, or they may be external.
It is important to realize that both of these can be a potential problem. People have relapsed as a result of internal problems, but also due to external problems.
So you cannot afford to ignore either area of potential issues. You have to be willing to do the work in both areas.
So you make a commitment to yourself to do this work in recovery. You make a commitment to yourself to do the work that is needed to improve your life.
It should always be a mix of both. For example, when I got into recovery I was working hard on eliminating the self pity that threatened to drive me back to drinking. But my peers and my sponsor in recovery were also encouraging me to:
1) Go back to college.
2) Start exercising daily.
3) Quit smoking.
I eventually did those things. But I resisted all of them at first and I could not see how they related to my recovery at all. I did not think that they were relevant.
But of course it all ties together. And the example of cigarette smoking is much like the idea of drinking itself. The addicted smoker falsely believes that smoking cigarettes reduces their stress level. They think that it calms them down. In fact what is happening is that each time they reach for another cigarette, their body is going through withdrawal symptoms from not having a cigarette for the past hour or two. And so they are actually feeling withdrawal symptoms and physically stressing their body. This is why smoking is so addictive. They then “calm down” by having another injection of nicotine to cool off the withdrawal symptoms and keep them at bay for another hour or so.
In fact, nicotine use increases your overall stress because of the intermittent way that you deliver it throughout the day. The net gain in stress is bad for you rather than actually “calming you down.” If the smoker can walk away from nicotine forever then their overall stress level will go down, not up. But when we are stuck in denial it is impossible to see this, because we just want to reach for that next cigarette in order to reduce the withdrawal symptoms that we are feeling right now.
And of course there is a connection between the external circumstances that we deal with and our internal issues as well. For example, I never would have guessed that daily exercise could have such an impact on my emotional stability in life. I never would have believed that exercising vigorously every day could have such an impact on how I was feeling mentally and emotionally throughout the rest of my day. But then I started jogging every day and I was able to look back and realize just how much more stable it had made me.
Daily exercise became like a form of meditation for me. Jogging outside for an hour each day was like a massive boost to my emotional system. It had a cleansing property to it. It was a time when my brain could process stuff that was currently clogging up my mind. It was a way to detox emotionally.
I think anyone who doesn’t exercise every day is probably looking at a huge opportunity in their life. I resisted this for a long time because I quite simply did not want to do the work. I did not want to get out there and run every day. I did not want to push myself to be uncomfortable and get into shape. But then eventually I did it anyway (maybe out of desperation?) and the results have been incredible.
Perhaps daily exercise is not a key solution for every person in recovery. I am not so sure if that is the case. But I know that I had to search for a few years in order to find the solutions that worked for me. I had to push myself to take suggestions in life and try new things in order to find what worked for me.
For you, it may not be exercise. It may be doing yoga, or playing an instrument, or riding horses. I have no idea what will work for you specifically. I just know that it is your responsibility in recovery to discover the path that works for you. And you can find this path by asking questions, by asking for advice, and by testing out new ideas.
Treat your life in recovery like it is a sampler platter. Try new things. Talk to different people. Get advice. Test, test, test. I tried many things in my early recovery that did not really work out in the long run for me. I simply moved on and tried other things until I found what worked.
Establishing a daily practice that reduces stress through a holistic approach
The idea in long term sobriety is to take care of yourself every day.
But you have to do that on multiple levels. You have to take care of yourself in every way possible.
So you will want to consciously pursue better health in the areas of:
1) Physical health.
Not only do you want to improve your health in all 5 of these areas, but you want to do so every single day.
This requires conscious habit development.
And you get this by testing out new ideas. By taking suggestions.
So at one point I took a suggestion to start meditating every day. This helped me a bit but it was not the long term solution that I needed. Instead, I later turned to jogging, and this worked for me in a way that meditation did not. So I gave up on the idea of seated meditation and I focused on the jogging instead. They seemed to fill the same need.
Today I try to think about what my daily habits are and how I can improve them in order to better take care of myself.
If my life gets just a little bit better each day then those benefits will compound greatly over time. This is the power of positive habits. Therefore it makes sense to consider what your daily practice is and how you might improve upon it.
What about you, have you found ways to reduce your stress in alcoholism recovery? What is your overall strategy like? What daily tactics do you use to reduce stress? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!