How to Handle Stress in Addiction Treatment

How to Handle Stress in Addiction Treatment


Everyone in early addiction recovery is going to experience a certain amount of stress.

Not that early recovery is overwhelming, because it definitely doesn’t have to be, and that isn’t necessarily the case. I am not saying that early treatment is always super stressful.

However, the idea that early recovery is a bit of an emotional roller coaster is definitely very popular, and most everyone is going to have at least a few ups and downs along the way. It is not uncommon for the newcomer in recovery to experience at least some stressful events from time to time.

Of course, this is just life. Everyone experiences ups and downs. During our addiction we medicated those out of existence, so we did not really have to deal with the stress directly, and we simply escaped or avoided through our drug of choice. In recovery, there isn’t necessarily any extra chaos or craziness, but whatever does pop up in our lives is something that we then have to actually face and deal with. No more escaping, no more avoiding.

Of course even if you are clean and sober there are things that you can do in order to escape or avoid. I remember at one point in early recovery I was reading way too much fiction every day, and I was really using it as a form of escape. So I had to recognize that eventually and confront the reality instead and get back to living a real life and facing my life choices. Our addiction can manifest itself in many different ways, but we have to be living a healthy life and finding solutions instead of running and hiding from everything.

So one of the core principles that I have found in recovery is the idea that we need to lean into the anxiety, we need to face the situation, we need to “face everything.” Whatever we are avoiding or worrying about lately, it is actually best to confront it head on and deal with it rather than to let the anxiety fester. Better to just do it, face it now, do it sooner rather than later, and have the consequences known and out in the open right away. Just face it, just confront it, just do it. Do it now. That is a scary proposition for someone like myself who is normally fairly conservative and passive, but it definitely has served me well in terms of reducing my overall stress and anxiety.

Now second of all I would say that in your recovery journey you have two separate but related tasks: One of which is to reduce or eliminate stress, the other is to manage the stress that does break through into your life. Note that you are always going to be doing both of these tasks, as some stress in life is inevitable. Sometimes random events happen that are simply beyond your control, so you are still going to need to learn and practice various coping mechanisms.

So the first principle is to eliminate and reduce stress. One way to do that is reconfigure how you spend your typical day in life. I did this most effectively myself by first going to inpatient treatment for 28 days, and then transitioning back out into the “real world.” This set me up for success by providing a whole lot of advantages in terms of reducing stress in my life.

First of all, when I left rehab, I started to attend my aftercare which consisted of talking with a therapist every week. This helped me a great deal and the therapist was able to help me zero in on certain causes of anxiety and help me to make a plan to reduce those. Also, I took the suggestion after rehab of going to AA and NA meetings every single day for the first 90 days, which was another way to both avoid and relieve stress for me.

Second of all, as I started to work with a therapist and with an AA sponsor, I was identifying and dealing with some issues that I realized were tripping me up on a daily basis. The main thing that I learned about myself was how my brain was “fueling” my addiction: It was constantly making excuses as to why I was a victim and why I should “deserve” to get drunk or high. This was still happening in my brain every day, even after I had a few months in sobriety! And so the fact that this was happening in my mind was making me less happy, because my brain thought that it deserved to get drunk or high. And of course I was constantly focusing on why life was unfair and why I was such a victim.

So therapy and sponsorship helped me to identify and then correct this. I was able to correct it through the practice of gratitude and raising my awareness. So when something “bad” would happen in my life, and my brain wanted to jump to the idea that it was a victim and I deserved to self medicate, I had to train myself to start seeking new solutions instead.

Recovery is all about new solutions. My old fix was to get drunk or high. Therefore, in order to live a better life in recovery, I had to seek out new solutions for life’s problems, rather than to fall back on my old solution, which was always about self medicating.

Again, this comes back to “facing the problem” rather than running and hiding. If I had a new source of stress during early recovery, my best approach was always to say “what is a possible solution for this problem?” and then if I did not know the solution, I would start asking my sponsor, my therapist, people at meetings, and so on. I did not just accept the stress or anxiety in my life and live with it–instead I started problem solving in order to eliminate the stress.

Part of this is willingness. You have to be willing to do the work that is recovery. Yes, it takes real effort. But keep in mind that getting drunk and high every day is a lot of work as well. Life is hard no matter what, so you may as well start seeking solutions and trouble shooting your anxiety so that you can live a life of freedom.

If you choose the addiction path then life is hard and you end up miserable. If you choose the recovery path then you have to a lot of work, seeking out new solutions and testing them, taking advice, listening and learning–but eventually you get to live a life of freedom and happiness.

I have found several things that work well for me today in terms of stress relief. The two biggest tools for me are physical exercise and seated meditation. Writing in a journal is a strong contender as well, and talking with peers in recovery is helpful too. I have not yet encountered a level of stress that I could not handle with some mix of these techniques.

You need to discover your own techniques for dealing with stress and anxiety. Listen to people who are successful in recovery and start taking their advice. By doing so you can find your own path to reducing stress in your own recovery journey. Good luck!