What is the key to getting more serenity in alcoholism and addiction recovery?
In my opinion there are several suggestions that can make a big difference in your life. The examples provided here are simple suggestions that have helped me in my own journey, and so your mileage may vary quite a bit if you try any of them. There are other tactics and techniques out there that others might suggest, and I would urge you to seek out those suggestions as well.
In fact, that may be the best piece of advice that I can give you: Go seek out more advice! But don’t just seek out advice for the sake of listening to new ideas, instead, you have to actually put the ideas into action. Test things out. Think of yourself a test subject in early recovery who is finding the best methods for sustaining sobriety. You are going to try new things until you find out what works best for you. This is the best possible approach to recovery in my opinion.
Think about this for a moment: If you just try one or two things in recovery and they sort of work for you, but then you stop at that point, you might do OK. Or you might relapse. But if this is your approach and you are content to just do what was originally suggested to you without venturing any further, then you will never really learn anything new. You won’t expand your horizons. You won’t discover new things that might really help you in recovery.
Let me give you an example. I had several years sober already and I would have told you (at that time) that my sobriety was super awesome. It couldn’t get much better, and I would have argued that it could not get much stronger either. I was doing everything that I could (I thought) from a spiritual perspective in order to maintain sobriety.
But then I discovered exercise. And I started running every day. This did not happen until I had several years sober. And this transformed my life all over again. It had a hugely positive impact on me and my sobriety. And I would also argue that it made my recovery quite a bit stronger. Daily exercise became a very powerful tool for me.
And yet I had sort of written off the idea completely before I discovered, thinking that I was somehow “finished” with my recovery journey. As if I had already arrived, or achieved what was necessary in sobriety already. That is not a good attitude to have. You want to stay much more open than that.
So let’s take a look at some of the key factors in achieving more serenity in sobriety. As I noted, your mileage may vary with these. You may find other strategies that work better for you in your own life. I would encourage you to seek out more advice rather than just going by my own experience and ideas!
If your expectations in life are really high then you will just be setting yourself up for disappointment.
On the other hand, if you can lower your expectations a bit, then you will be surprised and delighted when things go well.
The question is, how can you effectively lower your expectations in life without becoming a total pessimist?
I have a suggestion for you. It’s called “negative visualization.” This is a technique that is borrowed from the ancient stoic philosophers. They knew that this was one of the secrets to happiness. And it is not well known because it is very counter-intuitive. Meaning that when you first hear about the technique, you believe that it will make you sad. But it actually makes you happier!
So here’s the technique:
At various times throughout your day, you get into the practice of doing this negative visualization stuff. You imagine the current situation as a worse case scenario. Maybe you picture yourself getting into some sort of accident and being hurt very badly. Or maybe you imagine the people in your life being tragically killed all of a sudden. It sounds horrible, right? Why would anyone do this to themselves and think these thoughts? Won’t it just make you miserable, sad, or depressed?
But it works. It actually leads to more happiness, peace, and serenity if you actually do the technique. Because what happens is that when you force your brain to imagine a worst case scenario, as soon as you stop the visualization, your brain gets a boost in serenity as it realizes that it is not real. It was all just a bad dream. And so your mind gets this moment of relief, and you gain new perspective. Things could be so much worse, but they are not so bad really! This is how negative visualization turns into a positive thing. Because you are comparing your current reality to what could be so much worse.
This is one way to lower your expectations. If you can imagine your life in total misery and chaos, then the status quo that you are currently experiencing becomes much more desirable.
In a sense it is a way to choose happiness right now, in the present moment, rather than putting a condition on your happiness in the future.
Most of us are in the habit of doing exactly that–we will say to ourselves “If I can just achieve this certain thing in my life, then (and only then) will I allow myself to be happy.”
But that’s just silly. There is no need to wait for that condition in order to be happy. You can choose happiness right now, in this very moment. And you don’t need anything extra added to your life in order to be happy.
And so one way to realize that is to use negative visualization. Then you compare your current situation, which may not be very exciting, to something that is far worse. And so you can gain a sense of appreciation from doing that.
A lot of this attitude stuff has to do with being grateful. If you are being selfish then you are probably not very serene. Your mind won’t let you be serene when you are selfish because you want something that you do not currently have. So your mind obsesses over it and your thoughts are racing and you can’t be happy or serene because you lack this thing (whatever that may be). The way to be happy and serene is to realize that you lack nothing, that happiness is here and now, right now. Nothing else is required. But you may have to let go of something to achieve that. So we need to find new ways to let go of things too.
Meditating to lower your tolerance to stress
Here is something else that is rather counter-intuitive.
Most people try to raise their tolerance to stress. They want to be able to “handle more” in their life.
But perhaps you should handle less. Perhaps you should lower your tolerance to stress, so that you can’t deal with it as well.
Because then you avoid it.
Then you leave the chaotic situation. You walk away from the chaos. You say “no” to the misery in your life.
Sometimes it is hard to say “no” to chaos and misery. Sometimes we are addicted to that stuff, for whatever reason. It might even be something like a toxic relationship that is compromising our serenity. So if we want to regain our serenity then we have to say “no” to certain things.
One way to tap into this is to start meditating every day. You don’t have to be a guru to do this correctly. In fact, there is really no way to do it wrong. Just sit quietly. Or you can even walk and meditate. Kill off your electronics for an afternoon and go find peace inside of yourself. There are many different ways to accomplish this. And if you do it then it will show you where the chaos and misery is at in your life. Meditation exposes anxiety. Then you can make a decision: Do I want that chaos to continue? Or do I want to say “no” to it? And how do I say “no” to a particular bit of chaos or misery in my life?
Saying “no” usually involves facing your fears. I know that this is almost always the case with me. When I have to say “no” to something it is usually pretty hard for me to do. And yet it always seems to open a new door for me when I finally get up the courage to move forward.
If you never slow down and if you just keep running from day to day like a maniac then it is difficult to pin down your anxiety and deal with it. Sometimes I look back at my life in early recovery and see myself as being like a hamster in a wheel. What was I running from? I think I have learned to slow down since then. This is important. It has given me perspective that I once lacked.
Write in a journal to do a “brain dump”
If you want more serenity on a day to day basis then you need to develop habits that allow you to accomplish that.
A daily habit is especially powerful. You never miss a day. So you get the benefit from such a habit every single day, and the effect can build over time.
One such habit might be to write in daily journal.
This is something that can only be appreciated if you actually do it. Just thinking about it doesn’t help at all. You won’t benefit by imagining what it might be like. You only benefit by actually writing every day.
So what happens? Why does it work?
If you write in a journal every day then it does a little something in your mind. All of that stuff that is cycling through your brain gets organized. You write it down and it becomes permanent. And because you wrote it all down your mind gets a breather. It takes a break. Your mind says “Oh good, we wrote all of that stuff down, so I won’t forget it and I don’t have to obsess over it as much any more.” So it frees up your mind to do more original thinking, to be able to enjoy the moment, to be free from the obsessive thoughts. It is like giving your brain an upgrade in processing power. It frees it up to do more of the good stuff, rather than just rehashing your current anxieties.
So if you just force yourself to write in a journal every day, you really can’t do it wrong. Write down whatever you like. Write down your worries, your anxieties, whatever is going on in your life right now. Imagine your closest friend has asked you “so what is going on with you today, what is up lately?” Then write down as if you were talking to that close friend. It’s a brain dump. You are just dumping the contents of your brain onto the page. All of the stuff that is swirling around up there, you are getting it all out.
So you do this once, you write in a journal for one day, and it has a benefit. But if you do it every single day for a very long time, and it will actually start to reshape your thinking. Because now your mind is in the habit of organizing those thoughts, writing them down, and then moving on to more productive thinking.
If you are obsessed with worry or anxiety then you cannot enjoy the moment.
The only time that anyone can ever be happy is right now. That’s it. The present moment is where happiness exists. So if you are worrying about the past or the future, you are not happy. You are traveling in time mentally.
So every day, write down your past and future thoughts. Write down the stuff that your brain keeps thinking about. Get it down on the page, so that you can free up your mind.
It’s a technique. It may or may not work for you. But you won’t know unless you test it out for yourself.
Exercise in order to emotionally cleanse yourself
Your thoughts are one thing, and I recommend that you keep a journal and write those down every day.
But what about your emotions?
This may be even more important than your thoughts because you cannot really choose your emotions.
If something significant happens in your life then you may be hurt, angry, afraid, or joyful as a result. You don’t get to choose your emotion.
You can choose to shape your thoughts about the event, and you might be able to rationalize with yourself and influence the strength of that emotion, but you cannot just choose the emotion. If your pet dies and you are sad, you can’t just force your brain to suddenly be happy instead. Your emotions never lie to you. They reflect your innermost truth. You don’t get to choose what they are.
I fell in love with drugs and alcohol because I found a loophole in this emotional game. The loophole was essentially: If I drink enough alcohol and take enough drugs, I don’t have to feel my emotions. I can free myself entirely from emotions by going numb.” That was a big reason that I drank and abused drugs. I didn’t have to feel. That was pretty awesome.
In recovery, I no longer have that option. If I am sad or angry or scared, I can no longer try to medicate those emotions away by drinking or using drugs. I choose not to do that any more.
So I have to find other ways to deal with emotions.
For the most part, it is not a huge problem. One of the benefits of sobriety is that there is far less chaos. Sure, bad things can still happen. And they do sometimes, even while sober. But it is far less than the chaos and mayhem of addiction. My life is better today because I am no longer screwing it up so badly with addiction. So there are less negative emotions to deal with.
Second of all, I have forced myself to feel my emotions in early recovery. I know that it is not fatal, like I thought it was in my addiction. I can get through it. It may be uncomfortable but it won’t kill me.
Third, I have new coping mechanisms. One of those, for me, is exercise.
Again, this is just an example. Exercise is what works for me.
On one of the worst days of my life in recovery, I went out and ran many, many miles along the countryside. That is what I had to do to remain sober. It worked for me when I was at my most vulnerable point, when I actually had some thoughts about taking a drink of alcohol. Instead of relapse I went out to the open road and I pushed myself to run very, very far. I ran until my muscles ached and I nearly collapsed with fatigue. It was what I needed to do to stay sober.
Exercise may not be the answer for everyone. I fully understand that. But every person in recovery should explore different ways to cope with negative emotions in their life. Every person needs to have an outlet.
It is your responsibility in early recovery to find that outlet. You need to take suggestions from other people and do what they tell you to do. Try new things. Find your outlet. As they say in Happy Gilmore, you need to “go to your happy place.” My happy place is running long distances. That works for me and keeps me sober even when I am at my most vulnerable.
Every person in sobriety needs to explore enough to “find their happy place.” If you don’t have one yet, if you don’t have a sanctuary in your life, if you don’t have a way to overcome negative emotions, then you definitely have some work to do. Some exploring to do.
You do this exploring by talking to other people. Get their ideas, take their suggestions.
Find people who have long term sobriety, and find out what their happy place is. Then emulate it. Model it. Do what they do, see if it helps you. If not, move on and find another strategy, another technique.
What works for me does not work for everyone. But you can still find your happy place if you are willing to look for it.
The final piece is gratitude.
This is almost always the final answer. If you have genuine gratitude then you are nearly invincible.
Because no matter what happens, no matter how unlucky you may be, you can still turn it into a positive. You can still see the silver lining. You can still find a way to put a positive spin on any situation.
And if you are being positive then you are not going to relapse.
If you are content and have serenity then you will not throw that away by taking a drink.
If you cultivate gratitude in your life then this will also build serenity. The serenity is a by-product of having more gratitude.
By cultivating gratitude you will automatically have more serenity in your life.
So how do you do that?
How do you create gratitude out of thin air?
Use the negative visualization, for one thing. This produces gratitude.
Second, make a gratitude list. Force yourself to sit and come up with ideas for why you are grateful.
Yes, it will be hard to write out a list. If it is easy then your list is too short. Make a longer list. Force yourself to think. This is how you build gratitude out of thin air. By forcing your mind to work, to reach deep to find the reasons to be grateful.
And then make another list tomorrow. And the next day. Keep making lists so that your brain gets better and better at finding the gratitude.
What about you, how do you achieve serenity in your life today? What works for you? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!