How to Establish Healthy Habits for Long Term Sobriety

How to Establish Healthy Habits for Long Term Sobriety

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Yesterday we looked at how to build momentum by achieving successive goals in recovery. But what should those goals be based on (what really is positive action?) and how should we seek to live in long term recovery?

What is recovery if not healthy habits?

Recovering from addiction or alcoholism is nothing if not a move towards better health.

Think about it. Think carefully about the decision to get clean and sober. What is the point of doing so other than to pursue better health in your life? Most addicts and alcoholics would just prefer to keep using their drug of choice out of convenience–changing is too difficult. But deep down they know and realize that it is killing them slowly over time, and that if they want to live then they are going to have to make changes. It basically comes down to a choice between life or death, between slowly dying from addiction or healthy living in recovery.

It would not make any sense to get clean and sober and then decide to start doing something that is seriously unhealthy. This would be counter-productive. The decision to maintain sobriety is a decision for better health. The addict is saying “I choose to be healthier in the future and in order to do so I realize that I need to overcome my addiction.”

Recovery is a decision to get healthier, and quitting the drugs and alcohol are just the biggest part of that decision.

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But obviously we can extend that concept, and pursue health in other ways. It does not have to stop with abstinence from chemicals. If we are pursuing better health by quitting drugs and alcohol then we can also take other actions to increase our health.

The kicker is that if we do so–if we choose to pursue better heath in recovery–it will help to enhance our recovery and protect us from relapse.

In other words, the healthier we become in recovery, the more protected (generally) we become from the threat of relapse. Why is this?


* When we pursue greater health in recovery we feel better physically, which gives us less incentive to self medicate.
* When we pursue greater health (such as through physical exercise) we become more emotionally balanced as a result, thus reducing the chance for relapse.
* When we pursue greater health in recovery we increase our self esteem, which creates a buffer of protection against relapse. In other words, as you become healthier in recovery, you will value your life more and more. This will make you less likely to sacrifice your life to a relapse.

So recovery is all about becoming healthier. Quitting drugs and alcohol are just the most obvious and important change for this, but it is ultimately a journey of greater health.

Holistic health in recovery

We tend to think of “health” as our physical well being, and as “not being sick.” But there are many dimensions to your health in recovery and you should consider all of them when you are looking for ways to improve your life.

For example, you may consider things like:

* Physical health – including exercise, fitness, nutrition, diet, weight loss.
* Mental health – not only treating any disorders or problems, but also think about increasing your education, expanding your horizons with learning, etc.
* Emotional health – are you surrounded by toxic relationships in your life? Are they dragging you down? Eliminate them, and protect your emotional well being and stability.
* Social health – are you isolated in recovery? Is this affecting you negatively? Does it help if you reach out connect with others? Do you need to push yourself to do this?
* Spiritual health – are you nurturing your spirit at all? Do you have an important relationship with a higher power?
* Financial health – are your finances a source of stress for you? What if you could eliminate that stress, would you be healthier?

If you look back at your addiction or alcoholism then you will probably notice that your disease negatively affected every single one of these “health categories” listed above. This is why recovery cannot be simple and one dimensional if it is to be truly effective. In order to “fully recover” from your addiction you have to make strides in all of the areas that your disease affected.

It is one thing to get clean and sober and follow a spiritual program of recovery. This works for some people, having the focal point of their journey being spiritual growth. But if you really look at what such a person does over the years in their recovery, they are actually branching out and making all sorts of “non-spiritual” growth in their life. If they are successful and remain clean and sober, then it is likely that they make progress in some of these other areas of their health. Humans are complex, our lives are complicated, and the growth that we make in recovery is not one dimensional. It is nearly impossible to decide that you only want to make “spiritual growth” at the expense of everything else.

Recovery is a journey of greater health and therefore you should seek to improve your health and make positive changes in all areas of your life. Doing so will strengthen the whole and have a “synergistic effect.” This just means that if you make growth in several areas of your life, all of those individual growth efforts will add up to more than just the sum of their parts.

I have found this to be especially true in my own life. Let me give you an example of how “synergy” worked for me in my own personal growth.

I very much wanted to quit smoking cigarettes when I was fairly early in my recovery journey. I tried and tried to quit smoking for a long time, but I could not seem to do it successfully. Each time I would relapse and go back to cigarettes. It was easy to justify this relapse because at least I was staying clean and sober, right? At least that is part of what I told myself.

But I still wanted to quit smoking very badly because I knew that the benefits of doing so would be enormous. Not only would my health be much better but I would save a ton of money as well. Not to mention that I would free up all of that time that I spent puffing away each day (usually while standing outside a building in the cold, being miserable!).

Well I kept trying to quit for a long time and I even tried designing certain incentives for myself, but nothing seemed to work. But then one day something (seemingly unrelated) happened. Someone encouraged me to start exercising. I started running on a regular basis (even though I was still smoking) and I kept at it for a long time. Eventually I was running six miles every single day even though I was still smoking.

I could tell that the running was pushing me to quit. I could tell that when I got done with a run, I had no need to smoke for several hours, because the “high” from the run replaced the feeling that I got from a cigarette.

In this way, I was eventually able to quit the cigarettes successfully. But I had to go beyond the one dimensional approach in order to do it. I had to tap into this idea of “synergy” where progress in another area of my life could combine with something else to make something truly great.

The discipline that I learned from running also helped. This taught me what I needed to know in order to overcome the cigarettes. You know when you are running down the street, and it’s hard work, and you are huffing and puffing and just want to die? If you can learn how to fight through that and run six miles every single day, then you have a much better shot at accomplishing darn near anything else, including giving up smoking.

The discipline that I learned in one area of my life was directly applicable in another area of my life. Thus my new running habit was the key that unlocked the “quitting smoking goal.”

The synergy part has to do with the benefits of these two goals. One goal was to become a runner. The other goal was to quit smoking. I could have easily done one goal without the other, or vice versa. But because I achieved both goals, and because they combine together so nicely (the high from running replaces the high from cigarettes) it created synergy. Both of these goals together was much more than just 1+1 equals 2. It was more like 1 plus 1 equaled five. Because the two goals both enhanced my health in the same way, the effect of combining the two goals was explosive, multiplicative, synergistic.

In this way, you can learn to seek out goals that align well with each other, and thus create this synergy in your own life. Running and quitting smoking go extremely well together. You might find at some point that you seem to have an easier time running when you eat healthy food, rather than eating junk. So nutrition may enter the picture at some point if you are exercising, because you want to give your body the right fuel. So this may lead to healthier eating. Thus, good nutrition and exercise go well together.

You may be starting to get an overall picture of how this works. Your health is not just a one dimensional thing. It is complicated, and everything connects. When you get clean and sober, there are all of these potential goals that you may have to increase your overall health in recovery. Achieving one of those goals may be helpful, but achieving several of those goals (that are aligned with each other) is much more powerful.

Therefore it makes sense to consider your overall health in recovery, and think carefully about how it all ties together. Think about goals to increase your health and whether or not they align well with your existing goals.

It can be pretty easy to spot things that are seriously out of alignment. This is why I was so motivated to quit smoking, and I knew that I had to do it at some point. Smoking was seriously out of alignment with my other goals in recovery. I was clean and sober, I was exercising, I was pursuing greater health in other areas of my life, so why was I sabotaging myself by continuing to smoke cigarettes? It made no sense; it was out of alignment, and therefore I had to quit.

Most people who think of “holistic health” are really thinking about “holistic medicine.” In this case we are just using the term “holistic” to refer to the “whole person” in recovery. Every part of your health is important and if any one area is suffering then it can hold you back and drag you down in your recovery.

It can be counter-intuitive, but your biggest gain in recovery is almost always from eliminating your worst habit.

If you are drinking or abusing drugs, then quitting is probably your biggest possible gain.

If you are sober but still smoking cigarettes, then quitting smoking is probably your biggest gain.

From there, you will have to dig a little deeper to find the negatives in your life. Do you exercise every day? No? That might be the next big thing for you and your health.

What about your diet? Is it an obvious problem for you?

The more obvious a health problem is, the more you need to focus on it immediately as your next step to better health in recovery.

How your health and habits are tied to self esteem

Your health is directly tied to your self esteem.

Self esteem is important in recovery. Extremely important. If your self esteem is low then relapse is possible. If your self esteem is high then relapse become unlikely or even downright impossible.

If you are feeling good about yourself and about your life, then you are not very likely to throw this away on a relapse.

Building healthy self esteem is therefore a very important activity in recovery. It is your protection, your buffer zone, from relapse.

There is only one way to increase your self esteem in recovery: you have to make positive changes.

When you make a positive change in your life you are almost certainly increasing your health in some way. Doesn’t matter what the change is, it is likely improving your health (if it is a positive change!).

For example, say that you reach out and help someone else in their recovery. This is a positive change. It improves your own health in terms of your social health, but also as far as your emotional well being. And it may also nurture your spirit to help others.

Or say that you start exercising every day and you have vigorous workouts on a regular basis now. After the workouts you feel exhausted but also energized in a unique way. You are tired but you feel good about yourself. And you get stronger and stronger after each workout, and you feel better and better about yourself from the exercise. Part of this feeling is because you know you are increasing your health, your body is sending you chemicals that make you feel better, and you start to notice lots of subtle benefits as a result of your regular exercise. Because you have a workout you simply feel better about yourself. It gives you a good feeling, a positive feeling. And that feeling lingers in your body, and in your mind for long after each workout. Your rhythm of daily exercise casts a positive glow on your entire life.

Conversely, if you make a negative change in your life, your self esteem will decrease. You will damage your self esteem and move closer to relapse. Say that you pick up the smoking habit again, after having quit some time ago. You will feel guilty and probably beat yourself up for picking up the habit again. This is a blow to your self esteem and it increases your chances of relapse. You become less protected from the threat of relapse because you are beating yourself up, engaging in negative self talk, and feeling foolish and worthless instead of empowered.

Therefore we need to try to make positive changes to our life situation, and to increase our health in recovery. And we need to do this in all areas of our life, not just in the spiritual dimension.

Physical first!

So how do you prioritize your changes in recovery?

Start with the obvious stuff first. Your worst habits in life are the things that need to be changed the most.

You may have an idea for something positive that you want to pursue in life, but if you have negative addictions they will hold you back from making any kind of real progress.

You have to clear away the clutter and the garbage from your life before you can get to the good stuff.

I would advise people to consider the physical aspects of their health first, starting with drug and alcohol addiction. For me that was always my biggest problem in life and nothing got better until I confronted that problem first and foremost. I had to get clean and sober first, before I could try to create any other positive changes. Otherwise I would just erase all progress due to my drinking and drugging.

Second I had to consider the fact that I was smoking cigarettes and out of shape. There was this huge potential for increased health, but I was stuck for a while in early recovery–smoking cigarettes every day and not doing any sort of exercise. As I mentioned earlier, I ended up changing both of these things as sort of a package deal. I combined the two goals because I could not seem to achieve them individually.

But also note that this was my highest priority change, by far. Since I was clean and sober and stable in my recovery, I had to step back and take a look at my life and realize that my biggest problem was that I was still abusing nicotine. My second biggest problem was that I was hopelessly out of shape, and not even fit to run a half mile. So I had to look at my life honestly and really assess where my health was weak, and then make a decision to tackle those problems.

For a while I was probably fooling myself while I continued to smoke cigarettes, telling myself that I needed to focus on my recovery and keep reading the literature and attending meetings and focus on my sobriety and not worry about other changes. This is a common excuse that you hear over and over again in 12 step recovery: “Don’t worry about quitting smoking, you have bigger things to worry about, like staying sober.” Bad advice, in my opinion, and at some point I had to realize that “yes, I am stable enough in my recovery to try to take this to the next level, and quit smoking and become healthier.” I had been using the excuse that everyone else uses, the excuse that “I needed to put my recovery first” so as to justify not making other important changes (like quitting smoking).

How healthy changes should extend from your choice for sobriety

As you become clean and sober and start to make positive changes in your life, you will slowly build self esteem. This will create a positive feedback loop because then you will feel better about yourself and, in turn, want to make more positive changes to increase your health. If you are not yet at this point (of wanting to increase your health) then you need to give yourself a chance, give yourself a break, and go through the motions anyway until the self esteem can slowly build. Fake it till you make it! At some point life will get better, and then you will actively seek better health for yourself.

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