Everyone gets stressed out sometimes - whether you’re in recovery from addiction or not. It might be your job, your family, or doubts about your future that are weighing on you. Either way, stress is a common part of our everyday lives, but it doesn’t have to result in relapse.
Increasing numbers of us are struggling to cope with stress every year. Sometimes, the way we try to calm ourselves down can make things worse in the long term, like substance abuse or overworking. Other coping mechanisms are healthy and helpful but rely on the presence of others, which isn’t always possible.
To make sure that your sobriety is as trouble-free as possible, it’s great to have a few strategies up your sleeve for something that medical professionals term “self-soothing.” This ultimately means calming yourself down when you’re feeling stressed out all on your own!
But before we get into it, what is happening to our bodies when we have a stress response?
Stress triggers a fight-or-flight response in our body, prompting us to unconsciously prepare to combat the perceived danger. The problem is that high levels of the stress hormone cortisol are not always super helpful in modern life. When your bus is stuck in traffic on the way to work, for example, being physically primed to face off an attacker will not help the situation. It can also be a catalyst for unhelpful substance cravings. For this very reason, to support our recovery, we need to change the way we feel in that moment.
The good news is that when we know about this mind-body connection, we can use both mental and bodily processes to access and intervene in this stress reflex. You’re basically “hacking” your body: taking back control of your state by overriding its fight-or-flight setting through simple repeated actions that don’t harm you, unlike substance use.
So with this in mind, here are four medically-backed tips for calming yourself down when you’re feeling stressed out.
It might sound simple, but controlled breathing comes up again and again in scientific studies as the number one way to reduce stress in the moment. When we’re angry, anxious, or stressed, we tend to take quick, shallow breaths. Therefore taking deep, controlled breaths can help combat your fight-or-flight response and get your body and mind back into a relaxed state.
You can do this by simply taking slower, deeper breaths. There are several more specific techniques available for helping you do this, such as:
Have you ever felt cooped up in a room and wanted to run out of it? That might be because you’re reacting to the temperature and air circulation in that room. Your body is telling you something - listen to it!
When you feel stressed inside, try getting some fresh air to cool off. This has three stress-busting benefits to help you calm down through your bodily and mental processes:
Music has long been used as a way of communally healing stress. Tapping into the rhythms of others helps us feel connected. The sensations can also jolt you into a different headspace if you’re feeling overwhelmed with cravings.
You can try listening to music that channels the emotions you’re feeling. Stress often comes from the need to cover emotions from others, making us feel isolated and triggering the release of cortisol. You can also try listening to music that you’ve previously enjoyed in a calm, happy time.
Do you journal or keep a diary? Medical experts have stated that journaling can reduce general stress levels and help people regain a sense of calm after a stressful incident.
It doesn't have to be straight away - stress often lingers in our systems for hours or even days after a spike, making us more reactive to stress later on. Journaling before you go to sleep can help you release any lingering stress from the day, ready to start tomorrow on a fresh page. If you practice the 12-steps, written inventory is a great way to combine this with spiritual development.
If journaling doesn’t feel possible for you, try writing down how you’re feeling during a moment of stress on the notes app on your phone or send a message to yourself. This still helps you process the feelings and regain some perspective without requiring the same effort as a regular journaling habit.
Stress is something that we will continue to encounter regularly, so it is important to have techniques that allow you to deal with it effectively wherever you are so that it never gets in the way of your successful recovery.