What is the best technique or strategy for stress relief when you are battling against drug addiction or alcoholism?
For a long time in my recovery I felt like even though I was clean and sober, I still let a lot of things get to me. I still felt the everyday stress of living for the first few years.
It has not been until the last few years that I feel like I have really made progress in this area. I definitely feel far less stressed these days, though I am not sure if this is an actual reduction in stress or if it is just a symptom of having less anxiety. Either outcome is fine with me though because it definitely makes for a smoother and happier life.
How to eliminate or reduce your stress in long term recovery through the daily practice
Life has a random quality to it that means there will always be bumps in the road.
In recovery, I have learned to work on both my life as well as my “life situation.” In other words, I try to change my external reality as well as my internal reality in order to reduce the amount of stress that I have to deal with.
For example, if you work at a job that seems to give you a great deal of stress, you might look for a new line of work that is far less stressful for you. (This is one of the major changes that I personally made in my journey).
Of course you can continue to make these sort of external changes and this will do a certain amount to lower and reduce stress in your life. But due to the random nature of recovery and life itself, you will never be able to completely eliminate all outside forms of stress. Things happen. There is no preventing this. Therefore you need to learn how to “roll with the punches” as it were so that you are able to deal with stress that gets dropped onto your lap. Not every negative situation can be prevented.
So how do you go about doing this? How can you protect yourself from future stress that is going to happen to you no matter what?
The way to protect yourself is by using the holistic approach to recovery. Because your addiction can sneak into your life in so many different avenues, it makes sense that you should make an effort to protect yourself on as many different levels as possible.
I have watched many of my peers in recovery who have relapsed because they were ignoring the holistic approach to recovery. Some of these people had what appeared to be (on the outside) an amazing recovery–they were heavily involved in traditional recovery (such as AA or NA) and they were adamantly pursuing spirituality. But they were also neglecting the other areas of their health, such as:
* Emotional health.
* Mental health.
* Fitness, nutrition, nicotine addiction. Physical health.
* Other addictions such as gambling addiction, sex addiction, etc.
And so on.
So you can become “sick” in many ways in your recovery. In a traditional recovery program, they tend to focus only on those who get “spiritually sick” and are headed for relapse in that particular arena. But we can get sick in other ways too, and if it happens enough (or if things pile up all at once) then it can lead to relapse.
Let me put that another way so that it is perfectly clear:
You can be “on top of your game” spiritually in recovery, and yet still end up relapsing (or dying early) because you are neglecting other aspects of your health.
Another example: The recovering alcoholic who is very spiritual and has been in AA for years but they die from lung cancer due to nicotine addiction. Now some people would argue “well, they weren’t really that spiritual because if they were on a spiritual path then they would have quit smoking as well at some point!” I guess at this point we are somewhat in agreement, though I would say that quitting smoking is in a different category of health (like physical health) and it is not really spiritual. It can involve your spirituality, and it can be spiritually motivated, but quitting smoking is still a physical change that you are making. It is to improve the health of your physical body.
So what you want to do in your recovery is to engage in a daily practice that allows you to become healthier on a number of different levels.
When you do this you will be protecting yourself from relapse as well–the kind of relapse that can never be fully predicted.
You stop drinking and you find AA or a religious based program. They set you on a path of spiritual growth.
Now it is up to you to realize that the solution is not spiritual, it is much bigger than that. It is holistic. You must go beyond the spiritual growth that they are saying is the entire solution. They are confused. The real solution is more broad then just spirituality.
So you start to take better care of yourself physically (to be fair, many rehabs and treatment centers do touch on the holistic approach, but if you just wander into a 12 step meeting you will likely just hear about spiritual growth and not a holistic path). Then you start to take care of yourself socially. You improve your relationships and you eliminate the ones that cannot be improved. Then you start to work on your emotional balance. You work to eliminate stress in your life emotionally. You exercise, eat healthier, quit smoking. And so on.
So you don’t just pursue spiritual growth like everyone pushes so hard in early recovery. That might be the most concentrated and focused solution (thus giving the fastest return on effort) but it is not the longest lasting solution. In the long run, you need more than just spiritual growth. You need holistic health.
And this is how you are going to reduce and manage your stress in long term sobriety. Through the pursuit of better health, in all of these areas of your life.
Every day I exercise pretty hard. I either do weights or I run six miles. I alternate every day. So that is a huge outlet. It is also a form of meditation. It balances my life out when things might be going poorly in other areas. It is consistent because I never skip a workout. There is power in this routine, in the daily habits.
The same thing can happen in other areas of your life. Obviously this is a big part of how spirituality works as well. Prayers and meditations can become rituals that give you power over time if you are consistent with them.
Emotionally you can take action on a regular basis to help smooth out your emotional life as well. This in itself is usually part of a holistic practice as well.
Relationships are another big area that demands a lot of effort. You can absolutely work on your relationships in recovery every single day, and still have room for improvement. There is no limit to the growth that you might achieve in the area of relationships with others.
My honest belief is that everyone who is successful in recovery has some form of a daily practice, whether they realize it or not. These are the positive habits that they engage in that help to keep them grounded.
What should your daily practice consist of?
If you relapse and look back at what you did wrong, it is pretty easy to figure out what you should have been doing differently. For example, one friend of mine in recovery got into a relationship very early in recovery and after a bad breakup this person relapsed. It was easy to look back and see that they probably rushed into things too quickly.
Another friend of mine was an alcoholic who later became sick due to cigarette smoking. Eventually he missed so much work and he became depressed and he relapsed. It is hard to know for sure but most people would agree that the holistic approach to recovery (quit smoking, nutrition, fitness, etc.) would have helped this person out a great deal.
And another friend became sick over time and they developed a condition that caused a lot of pain. They got put on painkillers and this eventually led them back to the bottle. If they would have been using the concept of a “daily practice” then they might not have become sick and injured in the first place (though it is impossible to know for sure).
So in every case we want to do what we can to prevent relapse. The problem is that you never know which direction a potential relapse is going to come from. Therefore it is a good strategy to make a daily effort to prevent relapse from all directions.
You can do this by asking yourself these questions every day:
* Have I taken care of myself physically today? Have I exercised, ate healthy foods, avoided other addictions (like food and nicotine and sex and gambling?).
* Have I balanced myself emotionally? Have I said “no” to the chaos that threatens my serenity?
* Have I taken care of myself mentally?
* Have I sought out positive people to associate with? Have I worked hard to eliminate or minimize the toxic relationships in my life?
* Have I sought out a connection with my higher power? Have I prayed or meditated in some way today?
This is a daily practice. You do these things every day (the actions themselves will vary from person to person of course). But you definitely cannot live passively and expect it to work.
The key is that you do them consistently, that you find what works for you and you keep doing it.
Once you do it enough it becomes a habit. And once you have these positive habits in place then it will protect you from the threat of relapse.
Most people who follow traditional recovery really only ask themselves that last question on the list. They focus only on spirituality. But if you are asking yourself all of the other questions that address the different areas of your health then you will be much stronger in your recovery.
The holistic approach is stronger. It includes spirituality, but it also goes further than that.
How do you lower your emotional stress?
Achieving emotional balance in your life can be difficult because you cannot do this one directly.
For example, if you are emotionally upset right now, you can’t just realize it and tell yourself “don’t be upset any more! Stop it right now!”
That doesn’t work, obviously.
So you must address the emotional imbalance indirectly.
In order to stabilize your emotions I would give you these recommendations:
1) Adopt the holistic approach. Find a daily practice that works for you. Find the habits that empower you and lead to better health. In particular, things like good sleep habits, regular exercise, and a healthy diet can all lead to more emotional stability. It all helps, it all adds up.
2) Learn to identify your emotions. Stop and figure out what you are really feeling. For example, some people don’t even know when they are angry. This has to change! You have to at least know and be able to identify your emotions. This can improve with practice, and with communication (see point #3).
3) Communicate your feelings to others. If you do this then you will learn how to process your emotions, how to identify them, how to be aware of them. If you are not aware of them then you cannot work to change them. And if you talk with others about your unwanted feelings then they can give you advice on how they have dealt with their own. Thus you can learn new ideas for how to cope in different situations. Communication can open new doors in this way.
If you are doing all three of these things then I can assure you that your life will definitely get better over time. It is a process and you get better at doing your daily practice as you move forward.
You should be finding people in recovery who are positive, who you look up to, and who encourage you in positive ways.
At the same time you should also be eliminating anyone who is not doing these things. If such a person exists in your life then we might label that person as “toxic.”
Of course that sounds like a very harsh label and the person in question might not actually be that bad. But you only have so many hours in each day and therefore you have a limited number of social connections that you can make. You do not want to waste your time on people who are not helping you to remain sober.
The term “energy vampire” comes to mind. If you frequently associate with someone who drains you emotionally or affects you negatively then you need to get that person out of your life. They are not helping your recovery.
Sometimes you have to push someone out of your life in order to make way for someone new to come in (someone who is more positive).
Relationships are a big part of recovery so you are definitely going to have to consider who you are spending time and energy with. Not everyone is going to be supportive of your new path in life.
Why a holistic approach is necessary to properly manage and reduce stress in recovery
Let’s say that you are getting clean and sober and you go to a traditional recovery center and they tell you about spirituality.
You start on your spiritual journey but you ignore these other areas of your health (physical, mental, emotional, social).
Can you imagine what will happen over time?
Your spiritual life may improve greatly but if that does not translate into growth in all of those other areas then you are going to run into a problem at some point.
Addiction is all about negatives. Our lives in addiction are run by the negative stuff that happens. We feel bad, we drink. We feel sad, we drink. We have bad luck, we drink. Something bad happens to us, we drink. We always find an excuse to drink, right?
In recovery, your happiness and joy is going to be limited by the negativity that still remains for you.
This is why many alcoholics eventually quit smoking cigarettes. Because they realize after a few years sober that it is holding them back, dragging them down.
You can have the best spiritual experience in the world, but if you are still holding on to something that is unhealthy in your life then you will not be truly happy.
And this is why you need the holistic approach. Because you have to clean up your entire life. You must eliminate all of the negative stuff that can lead to unhappiness.
If you don’t do this then your disease just finds another way to try to get you to relapse. It finds another avenue through which it can attack you.
Your life in recovery will never be totally perfect, but if you have obvious negative hurdles in your path then this will hold you back from really being happy.
Likewise, if you are ignoring your physical health in the long run then this will not bode well for your happiness or longevity. Recovering alcoholics and drug addicts tend to be in a less than healthy group to begin with. They should do everything that they can to improve their physical health. I cannot tell you how many people I know who have died in recovery. Actually I can, it is about 8 or 9 last time I counted them off. Most of them due to deteriorating health, which in many cases also led to a relapse before they died. Not pretty…
I don’t like seeing alcoholics end up this way in recovery. I like seeing people who end up healthy, who are pursuing greater health every day, who have found a daily practice that works for them. My hope is to wake people up to the fact that just pursuing spiritual growth may not be enough. They may have to push themselves to be healthier in other ways as well.
One thing you might do is to ask various people that you trust (or look up to) to give you feedback. Ask them this:
“Besides spiritual growth, what do you think I should be doing to improve my life and my overall health right now?”
Don’t let them dodge the question. Ask them to think about it for a day if they have to. Ask them what they did in their recovery journey other than pursuing spiritual growth. If you prod people a bit they will come up with all sorts of things that they did in order to improve their lives.
The problem is that if you ask someone in AA this question they will automatically go into “spirituality advice mode.” They turn into a robot and tell you to hit meetings, work the steps, etc. We want to dig deeper than that because there is a lot of potential growth that happens outside of those traditional suggestions. You just have to find out what that is and then turn it into a set of daily habits that you can then follow. This is the daily practice, and this is how you REALLY prevent relapse–through taking positive action every day.