How can you stop drinking if you suffer from anxiety, and rely on your drinking to help calm your nerves?
What is the process by which a person with anxiety can overcome alcoholism? Is it even possible?
Yes it is absolutely possible. I know this because I suffered from moderate anxiety when I was trying to get clean and sober myself. The anxiety did not just disappear when I removed alcohol from the equation and therefore this presents a challenge to the recovering alcoholic.
In order to overcome alcoholism you are going to have to find a new way to handle your anxiety. There is good news though! The “old way” of handling your anxiety–by trying to medicate it with alcohol–did not really work so well anyway. It may have worked at first, but in the long run alcohol doesn’t really help your anxiety, and in fact it can make it much worse.
Let’s take a closer look at these ideas.
The physical problem of withdrawal from alcohol and an increase in anxiety – part of it is temporary
Alcohol is a depressant. It depresses your body and your nervous system.
Normally your body produces a certain amount of adrenaline (this explanation is a bit of a simplification but the logic is still sound, so stay with me). Every day when you walk around, going to work and eating lunch and such, your body is producing a baseline amount of adrenaline. This helps to regulate your energy and your nervous system so that you can get through the day. If there is a threat in your life such as a “flight or fight” situation, your adrenaline may spike temporarily in order to give you an increased boost in energy. This is how your body is conditioned.
When you drink large amounts of alcohol every day, your body realizes that it needs to produce more of this adrenaline stuff in order to keep you functioning. If you drink heavily every single day then your body gets used to producing extra adrenaline to compensate for the depressant that you keep dumping into your system.
So what happens when you suddenly stop putting alcohol into your body?
Big problems. Your body is expecting you to dump more alcohol into it, so it just keeps chugging away, producing all of that extra adrenaline so that you can still function while you are bombarding your system with alcohol. But for whatever reason, you suddenly quit drinking, and there is no alcohol to deal with. So your body has way too much adrenaline, and this stimulates your nervous system.
Do you see that you have trained your body to become anxious when you remove alcohol?
Most alcoholics do not understand this. They believe that they are normally very anxious without alcohol, and that the only thing that is keeping their nerves calm is that they must keep drinking every day. When they experiment for a day or two and take the alcohol away, their body goes into hyper drive and they (falsely) believe that they have terrible anxiety when they are sober.
What they are really experiencing in many cases is an increase in anxiety due to the physical side effects of alcohol withdrawal.
Now this is not to say that an alcoholic cannot also have real anxiety when they are completely sober, but that is another matter entirely, and can be dealt with on different terms. There are many solutions for real anxiety, and pretty much anything is better than trying to self medicate with alcohol.
Another problem that comes up is that the alcoholic will experiment at some point with abstinence, or they will simply cut down drastically on the booze intake. This produces anxiety as described above, so the alcoholic will (possibly) go see a doctor and describe their anxiety. Now, because of shame, the alcoholic will generally not explain what their drinking habits are, so the doctor will not realize where the anxiety is coming from.
Therefore the doctor tries to be helpful and they prescribe an anxiety medication such as Xanax or Valium. This is bad. This almost always ends badly. What happens is that the alcoholic will take the anxiety pill and notice that it does, in fact, help to calm their nerves. The problem is that they are now depending on an addictive medication that is medicating their anxiety in much the same way that alcohol does. In fact, most alcoholics in this situation will inevitably drink while taking the medicine, even if they are explicitly told not to do so.
Once you start drinking while taking an addictive anxiety medication, look out. You are in trouble. Now you are training your body to produce truly massive amounts of adrenaline to compensate for the double whammy that you have put on it–addictive anxiety medications combined with alcohol. Now watch what happens if and when the alcoholic runs out of pills, and maybe goes for a day without taking a drink. This will normally result in seizures and could even kill a person if they are seriously dependent on the medicine.
I worked in a medical detox unit for over 5 years and I can honestly say that the most severe and difficult people to detox were those who were using a combination of alcohol plus something like Xanax or Valium or Librium or Ativan. Those medications are extremely dangerous when you combine them with alcohol, and detoxing from both substances must be done only under medical supervision. Anything else is just asking for disaster.
A doctor can help – there are non addictive medications that help to treat anxiety
So if anxiety medications are typically part of the problem (rather than the solution), then what is the answer?
Well you will notice that I have been talking (so far in this article) about “addictive” anxiety medications.
There are also anxiety medications which are NOT addictive.
If you suffer from real anxiety, then it is your responsibility to talk to a doctor about your condition and let them know that you need a non-addictive medication.
Unbelievably, some doctors are not educated about this, so it is your job to be vigilant. Don’t take any drug that is a Benzodiazipine (valium, xanax, ativan, librium, klonipin, etc.). Tell your doctor that you are a drug addict (not just an alcoholic, but a drug addict) who cannot take addictive medications. To really be sure you should also tell your doctor that you don’t want any medications that have “any potential for abuse.” There are non addictive alternatives (such as Paxil and Buspar) that people in recovery can take without risking their sobriety.
In addition to this, there are non-medical ways to help deal with anxiety. This is another reason why the holistic approach to relapse prevention makes so much sense.
Using the holistic approach to minimize the effects of anxiety
Anxiety is a complicated condition, much like alcoholism itself.
You can’t just say “Oh, I used to have anxiety, but now I take this pill and it is all gone. I am better now.”
That is not how anxiety treatment typically works. Nor is that how addiction or alcoholism recovery works.
The conditions are more complicated than that, and therefore the solution is more complicated than that as well.
And this is where the holistic approach comes in.
For example, I have found that regular exercise is really helpful for both managing my anxiety as well as preventing relapse in my addiction. It seems to help me on both fronts. And it is definitely an outlet for anxiety when I engage in vigorous exercise.
Now, is this concept my whole solution? Of course not. In fact, I did not even start exercising in my recovery until after I had a few years sober. During those first few years of recovery, I was exploring different ways to overcome my anxiety, to deal with it, to minimize it, and so on. Finally I discovered exercise and that made a big impact, but it is not the entire answer, nor is it the end of my personal growth and progress. There is always more to learn.
The holistic approach is quite open. This is why they talk about being “open-minded” in recovery. You don’t want to shut yourself off from a potential solution that might help you. To be honest, this is what I was doing (unfortunately) during the first few years of my recovery when it came to the topic of exercise. I was sort of saying to the exercise idea:
“Oh sure, I believe that exercise is probably helpful to most people in recovery, and I believe that it might even reduce anxiety, but it’s just not for me right now, thanks.”
That was basically what I was saying during my first two years of recovery. Later on I was lucky enough to give exercise a chance in my life, and this made a huge difference for me.
Let me give you another example. The same thing happened to me with meditation. I sort of pushed the idea away for a while, and I did not really think that it was for me. But then one day I opened up to the idea, and I gave it a really good chance to work in my life.
And you know what? I rejected it. I meditated for a few weeks, experimented with different techniques, and ultimately decided that I was getting the same benefits during my distance running. Meditation was not a good fit for me. It might help anxiety for some people, but it was not the right path for me. But I gave it a fair chance.
Now what is important here is the experimentation. Be honest with yourself. And then take suggestions from other people.
Notice what I did. I took two suggestions: One was to meditate, the other was to exercise. I gave them both a fair chance to work in my life. And I ultimately adopted one practice and rejected the other one.
This is how recovery should work. This is how you can overcome your anxiety as well.
Obviously it takes work. You have to put in the effort. And you have to be willing to take suggestions from other people.
Ask people at an AA meeting: “Who here has overcome anxiety in their recovery? Could you take me aside after the meeting and talk with me for a moment? I am really struggling.”
If you go to 3 different AA meetings and say that at each meeting, you will get an amazing amount of advice and support from reaching out like that. And if you actually take some of the suggestions and follow through with them, your life will improve a great deal. You will be amazed if you put this idea into practice. This is how you start the process of reinventing yourself in recovery. You must first reach out and ask for guidance. Then you have to follow through.
Using a daily practice to establish a healthy life in recovery that will help to treat your anxiety
Overcoming alcoholism (or anxiety, or both) is all about what you do on a day to day basis.
Your recovery unfolds before you one day at a time.
Therefore you need to develop a strategy that allows you to use daily habits in order to overcome your anxiety and your alcoholism.
If you have a daily practice then this narrows down your options and the actions that you will take. It removes all of the what-ifs.
For example, I wake up each day and I write about recovery. Then I immediately go and exercise for an hour. This is my daily routine. I start every single day this way with no exceptions.
There is power in the idea of establishing daily habits. If those habits result in taking positive actions every day then this will give your life a new direction and a lot of power. For example, I have been doing my “daily practice” for over a decade now, and the results in my life have been amazing. Tiny benefits from each day accumulate and carry forward. After 12 years the results are amazing. Life just keeps getting better and better in recovery.
If you want your life to get better and better over time then guess what? You are going to have to work at it. You are going to have to put in the effort to make good things happen. It takes work. It takes real dedication and effort. But the results are obviously worth it, and they speak for themselves. If you push yourself to keep improving your life and your life situation then eventually your life will be amazing.
There are two paths that any person can take in recovery. You can blame others and be a victim, or you can actively create what you want in life. If you choose to be a victim and blame others then you will have every excuse that you need to go get drunk.
On the other hand, if you are actively creating the life that you really want (through the power of the daily practice) then you will every excuse that you need to stay strong and NOT relapse. Why would you want to relapse if things are going good in your life? Why would you want to throw away joy and happiness and peace and contentment? I have the answer for you right here: You won’t want to do that if you have built the life you really want. You will want to protect your new life and your happiness by making sure that you don’t relapse.
This is the most practical form of relapse prevention that I have found in recovery. There are other ways to try to prevent relapse but none of them produce the same level of benefit that “creative recovery” produces.
You should make a decision right now to build a new life for yourself in recovery. You can do this through the use of a daily practice. In order to establish your daily practice you have to figure out what you want and how you want to improve your health. There are many ways that you can become healthier in recovery, not just physically. Once you figure out what those goals are you can then start to get feedback from others in recovery about how they have achieved their success. Modeling is very powerful, simply do what others have done in order to get the same results that they got. This is what sponsorship in AA is based on, and it really works if you put it into practice. Figure out what you want, figure out how to get there, and then do it. If you do it right then you should be taking positive action every single day in your life. Your habits will define your outcomes. Your future self is a product of your present day habits.
Anxiety can be a challenge but it is no excuse for anyone to keep drinking
As we pointed out above your drinking may actually be making your anxiety worse.
There is no excuse to keep drinking. Every alcoholic has an opportunity to improve their life by making a decision.
In order to do this they have to surrender and ask for help. That is simple to do but not necessarily easy. It takes guts, it takes courage, and quite honestly I was almost too afraid myself to go through with it. Eventually I became miserable enough in my addiction that I was willing to face my fear and anxiety.
I was terrified of AA meetings and I knew if I went to rehab that they would make me go to them. People said “well just don’t talk at the meetings” but I was still anxious to sit in the meetings anyway, whether I spoke or not. But eventually I was so miserable with my drinking that I was willing to put that fear aside and go to rehab anyway. And they did have me going to AA meetings every day, and I was nervous in them. Big deal. I got over it, I made it through the meetings in spite of my anxiety, and eventually I was able to build a new life in recovery as a result.
You don’t do yourself any favors if you hold yourself back from treatment based on your anxiety. I know that you may be anxious, as I was nervous too. But at some point you have to throw that caution to the wind and go get the help you need. What is worse, being nervous in an AA meeting or being dead because you couldn’t stop drinking? That is not meant to be a snarky question. Really ask that of yourself, would you rather face your fear and get some help, or would you rather die? Because honestly that is what it will come down to for nearly every alcoholic who is afraid to go to treatment.
You owe it to yourself to go get the help that you need. Your anxiety will not live on forever in sobriety. You will find a way to overcome it and to deal with it, I can assure you of that. No alcoholic will continue to live in misery and fear if they cannot get control of their anxiety. Eventually they will return to self medicating. But that doesn’t have to happen if you are willing to ask for help and take some suggestions.
You can get angry and upset at certain suggestions, saying that they won’t help you. This is true for some suggestions, I will give you that. But what you are missing is the fact that you can go ask for help, go to rehab, and start taking suggestions from people, and SOMETHING will work. Something will help you. And if you keep taking suggestions, then you will find another something that will help you. And if you keep doing this, over and over again, you will overcome your anxiety.
So stop making excuses. I realize that not every suggestion will instantly cure your anxiety. It doesn’t work that way, and we both know it. You have to dive in. You have to take the plunge. Go get the help that you need and reach out to others and start accepting their ideas. Try them out. Meditation didn’t really work for me, but did that result in tragedy? No. Did that cause me to relapse? No. I simply moved on and found another suggestion. I simply moved on and tried something else. This is how you build a new life for yourself in recovery, through experimentation. You cannot just expect for recovery to be perfect and for someone to drop all of the answers right into your lap at one time. You cannot just expect someone to give you a pill or a medication that will make all of your anxiety magically evaporate forever. It doesn’t work that way, and it doesn’t have to. You can still enjoy an amazing life in recovery if you are willing to put in the work.
Do you suffer from anxiety? Are you willing to take suggestions and ask for help in order to overcome your problems? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!