So many aspects of life get easier when you’re in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction - but the normal stresses of everyday life are still there. As part of the process of healing, you will have to face and reflect on the consequences of your addictive behavior and process the feelings you’ve repressed. This might seem overwhelming at times, but with the right approach, you’ll be able to navigate the highs and lows as they present themselves.
If you’re looking for advice on handling stress in recovery, you’re already thinking the right way. One of the most important challenges you’ll need to overcome in addiction recovery is building a new toolkit of skills for coping when life gets hard. Internalizing a new, sustainable set of stress management techniques that work for you is at the center of relapse prevention.
For many of us, substance abuse started as a coping mechanism for a stressor we couldn’t deal with. That might have been related to chronic stress in our lives, an acutely traumatizing situation we experienced, a mental health disorder, or any of the countless unique situations that we hear about in recovery communities. Just as it brings on addiction, high and poorly-managed stress is one of the leading conditions that leads to relapse. We know this from clear personal reporting of increased cravings during stressful times and, more recently, from imaging studies.
You will need to build up a good relapse prevention plan while you’re still in treatment to help you from falling into old habits once you start practicing sobriety alone. The uncomfortable feelings that triggered use before - whether it was anxiety, depression, social pressure, or an unresolved memory or emotional challenge - will still be there and your coping mechanisms during times of stress need to change.
This is where stress management techniques come into play. Here are our recommendations for best preparing yourself for stress and for dealing with it as it comes.
Whether we did it, ignored it, or were annoyed by it, we have all been told to take a deep breath at some point. Breathing deeply when we start to feel overwhelmed really can calm us down. Deep breathing quiets the body’s fight or flight response and signals the nervous system to slow down heart rate and lower blood pressure and cortisol. Just five deep breaths in the moment can make all the difference.
Eating well means providing the right fuel for your recovery. Not only can preparing healthy food become a relaxing expression of self-care, it may also help boost the neurotransmitters associated with calmness and satisfaction. Well-regulated dopamine, serotonin, and GABA levels will support your quest for low-stress levels.
Stress gets really out of control when we start to lie to ourselves about it. Whether we are repressing it, trying to make ourselves believe it isn’t that bad, or obsessing and catastrophizing about a stressful event - denying reality sets us up for failure. Starting a meditation practice can help you get in touch with how you are feeling in the moment. However you choose to practice, you will learn skills that help you focus and calm the mind. We recommend mindfulness meditation, a practice you can conveniently do at any time.
This one may be a bit of a no-brainer after the past year locked indoors. Spending time outside, especially in or near green areas, has been proven countless times to significantly improve our mental health. Research suggests that getting outdoors dramatically decreases cortisol levels and leads to lower reporting of negative feelings. If you can spend time out of town, hiking, swimming, or camping, you’re surely going to have fun and grow more relaxed. Even taking regular walks to explore local greenspace near you is likely to do wonders for your stress levels.
It is important that you take the time to do the things that bring you joy. One great source of satisfaction in recovery is the feeling of reconnecting to friends, loved ones, and hobbies without the fogginess of addiction. Remember that you also need sufficient time to recharge by yourself, so be sure to schedule some me-time too.
Recovery means learning how to cope with stress in the way that works best for you. Whether you choose to practice one of our tips or go for a completely different approach, what is important is that it grounds you and helps you to feel safe.