It is possible to live an amazing life in recovery in which your spirits are lifted on a regular basis through personal growth. I believe that they key to having this sort of life is a balanced approach to recovery in which the goal is personal growth. The direction of that growth is loosely defined as being “holistic health.” Meaning, you don’t just pursue growth in one area of your life (such as spirituality) but instead you try to achieve progress in many different areas: Physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual.
How the holistic approach to recovery works in the real world
When I was in very early recovery I did not believe that the holistic approach was valid. Quite honestly, I thought it was stupid. The reason I believed this was because I figured that I needed extreme focus on spirituality in order to remain clean and sober. That seemed to be what I was hearing in the 12 step program that I was attending at the time. “The solution is spiritual.”
But at the inpatient rehab program I was at, they had groups and lectures that talked about other ideas as well. For example, they had a lecture called “balanced lifestyle.” At the time, this made no sense to me. My lifestyle was not balanced during my addiction and quite honestly it was not very well balanced in early recovery either. I happened to be living in long term treatment at the time so my life was not very well balanced. I wasn’t working yet and I was just starting the process of rebuilding all of the relationships in my life. I was starting over from ground zero, so to speak. I did not yet have much balance in my life.
They also had a group that was based on health and nutrition. Again, I could not see the point of this from my limited perspective in early recovery. I thought to myself: “Nutrition doesn’t matter in early recovery, what matters is figuring out how to not take a drink each day. The solution must be entirely spiritual. That is the only thing that can possibly save me.”
So I thought that the idea of working on nutrition and health was pretty silly as well. It didn’t make any sense to me at the time.
In early recovery these ideas are understandable. It is normal to need to use extreme focus in early sobriety just to remain sober. But in long term recovery these ideas start to make a lot more sense. In long term sobriety, nutrition and physical health start to make a much bigger difference.
There are several reasons for this effect. Holistic health matters more and more the longer you stay clean and sober.
For one, in long term sobriety you sort of have the basics of staying sober down to a science. It gets easier. It becomes routine. So you no longer need that extreme focus that you may have had in the beginning. You can start to branch out a bit and focus on other things in your life as well, without risking relapse.
For two, the things that cause us to relapse will change and evolve over time. In early recovery it is pretty obvious–you are still craving your drug of choice and if you cannot distract yourself or find the necessary support then you may cave in and simply relapse. I had to go to daily meetings, live in long term rehab, and talk to my peers on a daily basis in order to avoid this threat. But after a year or two in recovery I was able to make it through the day without the constant cravings and threat of relapse. So at that point I was able to shift my focus and try to improve my life in other ways. Sobriety is the foundation for personal growth, but of course you have to get it right and actually stay sober, otherwise everything goes down the drain!
So in the real world, the holistic approach to recovery becomes more and more important the longer you remain sober. In very early recovery it is not even an issue, in my opinion. When you have a few days sober you just need to get immediate help and figure out how to avoid relapse on a minute to minute basis. Treatment and support are of paramount importance. Only in the long run does the holistic approach start to matter.
In very long term recovery it is almost the only thing that matters, because the number one threat in sobriety becomes complacency. The only way to defeat complacency is to take action and find a way to motivate yourself to pursue personal growth. You are either moving forwards or you are moving backwards. If you stop moving forward then you are complacent. This part is pretty easy when you have less than a year sober because there is so much work to do in so many different areas of your life. But after a few years in sobriety you may run out of obvious changes to make and then you have to “up your game” so that you continue to find areas of personal growth to pursue. If you stop finding personal growth projects then you run the risk of relapse.
“Holistic health” is just another way of saying that you are going to try to take care of your entire self, not just the spiritual part of you, but also the physical, mental, emotional, and social part of your life as well. When you take that broad approach to recovery then there are plenty of avenues of personal growth that will keep you busy for the rest of your life.
The synergy effect
“Synergy” is one of those buzzwords that everyone likes to throw around. What does it mean?
The idea of synergy is that the total of something is greater than the sum of the parts. So 1 plus 1 equals four rather than just equaling two, in this case.
The reason for this is because the things that you are adding together enhance and support one another. They create extra energy through the association.
For example, let’s say that your goal is to lose weight. You start doing two things, you eat healthier foods and you start exercising. You stick to this new routine for a long time and you see amazing results.
Part of this is synergy. Eating healthy foods is giving you the perfect energy to be able to exercise. Working out on a regular basis is driving better eating choices because you know that you can’t fill up on junk and still have a good workout. So the two changes are working together to create synergy. Because the two changes work together so well and compliment each other the results are outstanding. You get a huge boost compared to only making one of the changes in isolation.
This can happen in many different ways in addition recovery. All of the positive changes that you make in recovery are all connected in some way. And in some cases you cannot even see or notice all of the connections, but you will probably benefit from the synergy effect anyway.
For example, take the example of someone who gets clean and sober and then they start to make positive changes in their life. They start sleeping better and they start exercising every day. They start eating healthier meals and they also start to write about their recovery every day. And they find a new way to reach out and help others in recovery.
So some of these changes interact with each other and some do not do so as directly. The daily exercise will help the person to sleep better each night, and more consistently. The fact that they are exercising every day will motivate them to eat healthier foods as fuel. They will be more emotionally balanced due to daily exercise and healthy sleep habits so this will allow them to better help others in recovery. And so on. It all stars to work together, sometimes in subtle ways that we won’t even notice at first. We may never notice all of the connections between all of the positive changes that we make.
If there is negative energy or friction in your life then that is evidence that you do not have synergy in that area. For example, say that you start exercising but you also pick up the new habit of eating tons of junk food every day. Those two decisions are not complimenting each other so you don’t get that “boost” or that synergy effect. So you want to make choices and positive changes in your life that compliment each other. You want to find a direction of personal growth and then make decisions that support that new direction. In doing so you may discover themes to your life that you can make healthy changes around. Some healthy themes might include things like:
1) Sobriety. Abstinence from drugs, alcohol, chemicals, nicotine, etc.
2) Physical health. Better sleep, nutrition, lack of disease, exercise, fitness, etc.
3) Emotional health. Stability. Healthy relationships. Stress free. Meditation, relaxing.
4) Social health. Reaching out to others in recovery. Eliminating toxic relationships.
5) Spiritual health. Being grateful. Having hope, faith. Avoiding self will.
6) Mental health. Stability. Generating new ideas every day for positive changes.
So those are some of the themes that you might think about when it comes time to make positive changes in your life. Those are some of the themes where you will experience this synergy effect if you are pushing yourself to make progress in all of those areas.
Note too that if you neglect any one of those areas in your life for too long then you will probably start to notice negativity and friction. It is not only about chasing a new goal but also about monitoring your life and finding out where your anxiety is lately. If you slack off for too long in any one of those areas it can create real problems. Relapse is the end result of neglect. Therefore we have to stay vigilant in all of these areas so that we can prevent relapse in the long run.
Taking suggestions from other people in order to discover your holistic approach to recovery
If you go through that list above it can be a bit overwhelming. This is especially true in early recovery when you are trying to make so many positive changes all at once.
How can you ever prioritize it all?
One way is by simply removing self will from your life and focusing on the suggestions of other people.
This is one way to “turn it over” in recovery. Listen to the advice of others. Take their advice and put it into action. Take suggestions that you hear in recovery and implement them into your daily routine. See what changes occur. Give things a chance to work in your life. Do a 30 day challenge with a new suggestion and see if it changes your life for the better or not.
You should be willing to experiment in early recovery. You should be willing to try new things and take advice from various people. If you go to AA meetings then start to pay attention to who is really living a good life in recovery outside of the meetings. Everyone can talk the talk, but who is actually walking the walk? They say “stick with the winners.” I believe that implies judgement. Everyone may have a message for you, and you can learn something from anyone, but only certain people in AA are living the sort of life and recovery that you want to emulate. Find those people and start asking them questions. Find the peers in recovery who are living the sort of life that you want to live and then ask them for advice. Ask them what you should do each day. Ask them what actions you should focus on next in your recovery journey. Ask them how they stay healthy on a day to day basis.
Don’t just go to AA and use it as talk therapy. That’s not the intention of the program. Instead, get the best ideas from the “winners” at the meetings and then start implementing those ideas into your daily life. This is how you transform your life in early recovery. Through action. You have to get new information from people and turn it into action. Without the follow through your life will never really change. In order to transform your life you have to do the work. Don’t be afraid to do the work. Don’t be afraid to try new things in recovery at the suggestion of others.
Taking care of yourself in many different ways
When someone makes a suggestion for you in recovery, you might filter it with the question: “How does this change help me to take care of myself?” That is really the driving force in recovery.
In addiction, nearly everything that we did went further away from this ideal. Everything was negative. We took less and less care of ourselves in addiction.
In recovery, the theme has to shift 180 degrees. We need to take better and better care of ourselves with each decision that we make in recovery. Every action we take should lead us to greater health in some form or another.
Luckily there are many different ways to be healthy. There are many different forms of personal growth to pursue.
For example, there is your physical health. The foundation of this is eliminating the addiction and the chemical abuse. But it can go far beyond that in terms of nutrition, exercise, fitness, sleep, quitting smoking, and so on. All of it makes a difference. All of it is an extension of the sobriety idea. You did not get clean and sober to be unhealthy and diseased. The idea is to move towards greater health in recovery. This is how you lift your spirit.
But it’s not just physical health that is important. It is also your emotional state. If you are upset on a daily basis then you won’t be healthy. If you are on an emotional roller coaster than that is not healthy in the long run. Eventually the emotional state will smooth out for you in long term recovery. This will definitely happen if you are “doing the work” and it will not happen if you are stuck in denial. It is possible to be clean and sober and still be in denial about a lot of different things. Emotional turmoil is not good for you. And ultimately it can lead you back to relapse if you are not careful. Dealing with your emotional state is part of the holistic approach.
Mentally you need to be able to manage your own recovery in a positive way. This means that you have to be sharp enough to ask for help, to take advice, to filter new ideas and prioritize them. Even if you try to remove self will you still have to prioritize the ideas of others. You can never negate all responsibility entirely. Therefore your mental state is important and you should use the holistic approach to sharpen your mind and gain clarity. One way to do this is to keep coming up with new ideas to improve your life. Some will work out and some will not. But if you keep pushing yourself to come up with positive ideas and you continue to test them out then your life will get better and better over time.
Socially your number one goal is to eliminate toxic relationships. This is even more important than finding positive influences, though obviously you will want to do both. But definitely get the toxic people out of your life. They can’t help you. You need positive energy.
Spiritually you need one thing above all others: Gratitude. If you are truly grateful today then you don’t need faith, hope, prayer, meditation, or anything else that you might think you need. Gratitude is powerful enough all by itself. And when you go deeply into gratitude you will realize that it actually contains elements of faith, hope, prayer, and meditation, all wrapped into one. Gratitude is the anti-selfishness. Selfishness leads to relapse. Gratitude is relapse prevention. It is the one attitude that you must adopt in recovery.
If you want to lift your spirit in recovery then you need to take care of yourself in all of these ways, every single day. Of course doing that perfectly is not realistic. But you work at it. Therefore this journey is really a daily practice. You work at it and you get better at it over time.
Your daily practice and how it affects your spirit
Over time in recovery you should adopt certain habits that have a positive impact on your life.
You will also try new things that may not work out so well. Drop them and move on.
By doing this iterative process your life will get better and better. You are defined by your daily habits. You become what you do every day. Your actions are what matter.
If your daily habits fill you up with positive energy then this will lift your overall spirit and give you that “boost of synergy” that we were talking about.
But you have to put in the work, you have to make an effort in all areas of your life.
Are you willing to do the work today?
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