There is no doubt about it, early recovery can be overwhelming.
I think every recovering alcoholic and struggling drug addict has suffered from racing thoughts and an inability to quiet down their mind. The obsession over drugs and alcohol is very real, and it can manifest itself in several different ways.
So how do you get to that clear, calm, and collected mind in addiction recovery? How do we go from obsessive thoughts to peace of mind?
How do we go from chaos to serenity?
Let’s take a closer look at these ideas and see what we can learn.
Being overwhelmed in early sobriety while trying to get sober
You have probably heard some bits of advice along these lines if you are in traditional recovery programs:
“Keep it simple.”
“One day at a time.”
“Worrying robs today of its strength.”
And so on.
Those phrases get repeated often because they are true, and relevant. Of course it will help anyone to stay in the present moment and take recovery one day at a time. The trick is to actually live that philosophy and not just pay lip service to it (like we all do!).
I have heard some people suggest that you should just focus on “what is in front of you” in early recovery, so as not to get overwhelmed. If it is not directly in front of you then don’t waste time worrying about it. That’s the idea anyway, I am not sure if I ever was able to directly apply that advice. Depending on the situation, it can be easy to deal with whatever is right in front of you and stop worrying completely. But in other situations it can be very difficult to stay in the moment, and not play the “what if” game in your head.
Most people recommend that you find support in early recovery. That is, you need to find other people in recovery who can help you through your journey. People who can help you through the tough times, people who can support you when you are craving your drug of choice, people who can sit with you and drink coffee so that you don’t go to the bar. And you need people that you can identify with, people that you know have been where you are at now. Finding this sort of identification gives us strength, gives us hope, allows us to press forward and remain sober.
If you are overwhelmed in early sobriety then you may just need to slow down, deal with what is directly in front of you, and make sure that you find supportive people to surround yourself with. That said, if you find a lot of support in early recovery, the amount of information that you get from this can be a bit overwhelming as well.
We call that “information overload.”
Managing the information overload that you get from early recovery
The recommended routine in early recovery for many people is to go to 90 AA meetings in 90 days.
If you do this and you actually listen to the people in the meetings you will hear several thousand pieces of advice over that first three months.
Seriously. Several thousand suggestions for what you should be doing in your recovery journey.
How are you supposed to prioritize something like that?
It can be a bit overwhelming.
My suggestion is that you need to get really clear on a few bits of information, and you also need to take action.
One thing that you need to get straight in your mind is the idea of a zero tolerance policy. Say to yourself: “No matter what happens today, I am not going to take a drink or any addictive drugs. No matter what.”
That should be your highest priority in recovery, every day, from now on.
Everything after that is, in fact, just a minor detail. That said, you still need to sweat the details a bit in order to support your decision not to drink or use drugs.
So what of those details? What do we do with the other ten thousand pieces of advice we receive?
Here is how I would prioritize:
1) Total and complete abstinence is always your number one priority.
2) Your second priority is to find the negative things in your life and eliminate them. This can also be done through the 12 steps of AA. See “removing character defects,” for example.
3) Your third priority is improving your life and your life situation. Personal growth.
4) Your fourth priority is holistic health. Taking care of yourself every day, in every way: Physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, spiritually.
5) A fifth priority might be to help others in recovery. In terms of AA this is the twelfth step.
Those are just suggestions based on what has worked well for me in my own journey. Your mileage may vary. But if you are lost as to what to do next, you could probably do a lot worse than to follow advice such as this!
How to meditate in order to clear your mind
I have experimented with meditation a great deal in addiction recovery.
First of all, if you are early in recovery and your mind is racing then I am not so sure that seated meditation is going to “cure” your problem.
The idea of sitting quietly in order to clear your mind may be a losing battle if your thoughts are racing. In that case, you may want to jump ahead to the next section regarding exercise!
When I had a few months sober I started meditating, and I experimented with it on and off for the next several years. To be honest, I don’t really meditate in a traditional sense any more, because I get my “meditation” from another venue (more on that in a minute).
But when I was early in recovery I gave seated meditation a fair trial. I did it every day, usually more than once a day, and I would normally do it for about ten to twenty minutes at a time. I would quite often time myself to see how long I had went for. Usually 15 minutes felt like about an hour to me! And I noticed a few things when I got in the habit of doing this every day. Most of those things were benefits but there were actually some things that I did not like.
The benefits were definitely there: I was more calm, I could go to that “quiet place” very quickly when I was walking around throughout my day, and I was emotionally balanced as a result of my new habit. But on the other hand, meditating every day like this seemed to turn up the volume knob on my life. Sure, it was nice and quiet when you are doing seated meditation, and that silence was wonderful. But then when you returned to the real world, everything seemed so much louder by comparison. I didn’t like it, to be honest. And I found no way to mitigate this side effect other than to not meditate at all.
Given this, I eventually experimented with other forms of meditation. Namely, I tried exercise instead, which–depending on how you go about it–may or may not include the concept of meditation within it.
How exercise can help you to balance emotionally
I started distance running around the third year of my sobriety and I have been doing it ever since. When I started I quickly built up to 6 miles of jogging each day. Now I do 4 miles every other day and I lift weights on the off days.
When I run, I do so outdoors….no treadmills for me! And I don’t use headphones. I just run through the countryside. I run on steep hills for a bit of variety.
Sometimes I run along and sometimes I have a partner. When I run with someone, we talk at first, but then we eventually run out of topics, and we run in silence for a while.
I have found that jogging in silence is as good, or better, than seated meditation. At least for me.
Of course your results will vary with this. And I realize that not everyone can get out there and jog around the countryside like I can.
But keep in mind that when I started I could not even run a single mile. I had to walk. I had to build up very slowly until I could actually call myself a jogger. I started from nothing, from a place of zero fitness. I was completely unhealthy, and I built up my fitness from there.
I had no excuse, really, other than that I was lazy. At some point I overcame that laziness and I slowly whipped myself into shape.
Today I know that exercise is a gift. I also know that it is one of the pillars of my sobriety. Exercise helps to balance me emotionally in a very profound way.
If I took out the exercise I believe that I would have to make a huge effort in other areas of my recovery in order to make up for it. Maybe I would need to talk to my peers more, or go to meetings, or do something extra in order to maintain my sobriety. Exercise makes a huge difference in terms of helping me to stay emotionally balanced.
I have been clean and sober for over 13 years now, and of course that time has come with some ups and downs. I have been through some emotionally trying and traumatic moments in the last decade. And I can look back at those times and realize that I relied on exercise as a coping mechanism, as a tool to help me stay emotionally level through it all. This actually works for me in a way that other forms of addiction therapy do not.
I have thought about the act of exercise a lot in terms of how it helps me to balance emotionally, how it helps me to clear my mind.
Normally what happens is that I will start to jog, and my mind knows that it is going to be thinking for the next 40 minutes with very little distraction.
So it starts to process stuff. It is almost like being asleep and dreaming, where your brain starts to file everything in various places. Only when you exercise I think your mind deals with the emotions that you have and processes them.
I think it is important to be able to have a very intense workout. So it is not that I go out and run for 40 minutes every other day, but that–if needed–I can go out and run for 90 minutes tomorrow if I want.
No….if I have to. If I am faced with a huge challenge in my life, I can go out and do a really intense workout. And that may sound crazy, but doing exactly that is a huge way to cope with life.
Remember when I said that seated meditation seemed to “turn up the volume” on the rest of my day to day life?
Exercise seems to have the opposite effect. If you go do a really intense workout, then the rest of your day to day life fades a bit. You realize that it is no big deal. Suddenly you can handle nearly anything. You get this boost of power after an intense workout, because it gives you the strength and the confidence to know that you can handle nearly anything.
That is how it feels for me anyway. It can be very difficult to convey the full benefits of exercise to people in recovery. No one could convince me of any of this stuff when I first got sober. I had to discover it for myself. Exercise is kind of like that, either you “get it” and you are into it, or you don’t really get it and it just seems like a lot of hard work for nothing.
And that is how I used to view exercise–it was just a lot of hard work for no real benefit. But that was because I was out of shape! Now that I am in shape, the benefits of exercise are huge, and staying in shape is easy and fun. It’s no longer hard work to go for a jog. I look forward to it just like a monk looks forward to a session of seated meditation.
Anyway, it is a suggestion. If you want emotional balance, if you want a way to clear out your mind and halt your racing thoughts, then you might give this some thought. I always thought exercise was probably pretty stupid, until I got into shape and realized the full benefits of it. Now I couldn’t go without it, as it is far too important to my mental clarity and my emotional balance. It might work for you too. Or not. But probably worth investigating.
The power of writing in a daily journal
One more suggestion that has made a huge impact in my life:
Writing every day.
One way to do this is to write in a journal.
I have written hundreds of thousands of words in a journal. And I have written several million words about recovery online, some of it in recovery forums.
Writing can be very healing. It all depends on what works for you, of course. Not every solution is going to work for every person. As I pointed out above, exercise is probably not for everyone. And in that same way, writing is probably not for everyone either.
But you will never know these things unless you try. Just like you won’t know if AA will help you unless you give it a fair trial.
So here is what writing every day does for me.
Writing in a journal, specifically, allows me to clear my mind. Now what does that mean, to “clear my mind?”
Because obviously, there are still thoughts popping into and out of my head all the time. So my mind hasn’t really been cleared, has it?
Well, not so fast. My mind actually is cleared up quite a bit when I journal, because here is what happens:
I tend to do a “brain dump.” So whatever comes into your mind when you sit down to write, you put it down on paper (I actually type mine out, it is faster, no big deal either way).
So you get it down on paper. You type it up on the computer. And when you do this, you set your mind free from obsessive thought.
Because when you write something down, you are actually helping your brain to remember it. You are helping your mind so that it doesn’t forget.
And so the things that you are obsessing about, the things that you are worrying about, you can sort of put those things in a box and corner them off. When you put them down on paper, when you write about those things in a journal, they lose power over you. They stop pestering you as much. Because you have kept track of them now, you wrote them down. You recorded them. So they are not as likely to keep running through your mind.
This is sort of like giving yourself permission to worry about things tomorrow.
Think about that. What are you worried about today? What are you worried about right now?
Well, take out your journal. Write those things down. And set an appointment with yourself to worry about them tomorrow. No need to worry about them right now, because you wrote it all down, you recorded it, you are not going to forget it.
In this way you can free your mind. You can worry about it tomorrow.
And if you write in a journal every single day then you will start to see a progression. Maybe one day you will flip back through and read, see some of your thoughts from last month, or last year, or a few years ago. And that is nice too because then you get to see how far you have come. You can see your old thought processes, and compare it to where you are now, how you have grown. And that is important because then you will have concrete proof of how far you have come in sobriety. You will feel better about yourself because you will see how much progress you have made.
Again, not everyone was born to write. And not everyone was born to exercise. And some people hate to meditate.
But you have to do something. You have to find something that works for you. And sometimes you have to keep testing these ideas to see what might be working for you lately. I actually tried jogging much earlier in my recovery, and I didn’t really stick with it. I gave up. Then later I went back to it, and something clicked.
You have to be willing to take action, to try some new things in your life. Be willing to take advice, to listen to other people, to do some new things and see if they help you.
The 30 day trial is particularly useful for this. Take a positive suggestion and then turn it into a 30 day commitment. After 30 days you are free to quit, go back to your old ways. This is a powerful way into “fooling yourself” into developing a new habit.
What about you, have you found a way to clear your mind in recovery? What works for you? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!