10 Tips for Managing Stress in Addiction Recovery

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With big changes, stress is inevitable. For those in recovery from substance abuse and addiction, it may seem that everything in your life is changing and the stress that accompanies such changes can feel consuming.

Recognizing Signs of Stress
Stress can present as thoughts and feelings before becoming behaviors, and physical symptoms. Recognizing the signs of stress is the first step in finding a stress management style that fits you. Stressful thoughts typically begin as simple worry; but when thinking becomes focused and repetitive on stressors such as bills, job troubles, or relationship problems, your feelings can quickly change from worried to overwhelmed and frustrated. The biggest problem with these feelings is that they are nonproductive and self-defeating; they can quickly lead to counterproductive behaviors and increased stress, all of which can take a physical toll on the body. Nonproductive behaviors related to stress include procrastination, rumination, and indecisiveness; counterproductive behaviors include avoidance, termination of efforts and, for those new to recovery: relapse. The physical effects of stress vary widely between people, some experience headaches, neck and shoulder pain, difficulty sleeping, and changes in eating habits. Recovering addicts need to manage stress from its earliest presentation to avoid the dangerous possibility of relapse, the risk of which increases significantly when stress interferes with sleep and nutrition or when the body is in other stress-related discomforts.

Where to Begin

  1. Prepare for stress before it hits.
Stress is an inevitable part of life. Acceptance of stress and a willingness to approach problems early, before they become overwhelming is an effective first step in any stress management approach. During active addiction and drug use, coping skills diminish because most users turn to their choice drug in stressful times; expect some difficulties at first and be patient and forgiving with yourself.
  1. Create an organized, daily routine and weekly routines.
Part of preparing for stressful events is recognizing those things you can control from those things that you cannot. Create an organized daily and weekly schedule; remember to include set times for health-related priorities, such as sleep and exercise, recovery-related commitments, such as meetings and appointments, and extra time for any bumps along the way. Organization is a way of controlling those things you can and reserving your extra mental and physical energy for handling unexpected stressors that may come your way.
  1. Practice daily mindfulness meditation.
Take some time to learn mindfulness meditation. Research has shown that even ten minutes of meditation can significantly reduce stress, restore focus to the present, reduce negative emotions, increase mental alertness, and reduce physical effects of stress, including blood pressure, heart rate, and sleeping difficulties. The best way to start is with beginner, voice-guided exercises that can easily be found on YouTube. Once learned, mindfulness meditation can be done just about anywhere and anytime.
  1. Integrate exercise and fresh air into your daily routine
Many people new to recovery are faced with a daunting task of recuperating from the physical effects of alcoholism, drug use, and addiction. Exercise may seem like a monumental challenge but it is a worthwhile endeavor. You do not have to become a fitness fanatic, but try to get at least 20-35 minutes of light-moderate intensity exercise in each day. Whether you choose to walk, run, swim, or bike, 20 minutes a day will help reduce the effects of stress, reduce anxiety, and provide you with some feel good endorphins to get through even the most stressful day.
  1. Eat nutritiously and sleep restoratively.
When the body lacks its proper nutrition and sleep, it will rebel, leading to irregularity, lethargy, and a general feeling of discomfort. Take good care of yourself. Make sure to eat a varied diet, rich in protein, vegetables, fruits, and complex carbohydrates. Remember to stay hydrated throughout the day. Make sleep a priority and avoid electronics, if possible. Research has shown that electronics negatively affect the body’s natural circadian-rhythm, reduce melatonin production, and may even produce the “fight-or-flight” response (particularly in children) normally triggered by stress. For extra measure, Swedish and American sleep experts suggest charging phones and electronics away from where you sleep, as the EMR (electromagnetic radiation) emitted by electronics can also disrupt the sleep cycle. Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep each night; being well rested ensure that you will have a stronger immune system, clearer problem-solving and decision-making abilities, and reduces cravings.

What to Do During High-Stress Times
Remember that bit about recognizing what you do not have control over? The next half of our list of stress-management tips is dedicated to those high-stress times that inevitably occur. You may not have control over the event, but you do have control over how you react to it.

  1. Take a few deep breaths.
If you practice meditation or deep breathing exercises daily, this will be an easy in-the-moment technique. If you have not started meditating daily, you can still benefit from a few slow, deep breaths when you find yourself in a stressful situation. Place one hand over your belly, breathe in through your nose for a count of 4, making sure your belly rises, not your chest and shoulders. Hold for a few seconds before exhaling, long and slow through your mouth, flattening out your stomach through the exhale. Repeat 3-5 times. Deep breathing has been shown to stop the stress response by reducing heart rate, increasing the nitric oxide in the brain and body, and lowering the blood pressure.   
  1. Avoid isolating.
Find a local meeting, call a close friend, or your sponsor. When you are in recovery, being alone with negative thoughts and feelings can increase chances of relapse. Find safe, positive company. Allowing yourself the time to process stressful events can help you focus your efforts productively, rather than counterproductively.10 Tips for Managing Stress in Addiction Recovery
  1. Talk the problem through with a close friend, family member, or sponsor.
Everyone needs a sounding board from time-to-time. You may know someone who is great at budgeting: reach out to him or her if you are having financial hardship. You may have a trusted confidant that is great with relationship problems: reach out and ask for some advice. Part of stress management is knowing when to ask for help and how to make the most out of the help you can get.  
  1. Establish a problem-solving approach.
Just as you organized your daily and weekly schedule, organize your problem-solving approach into small, manageable goals. If you need to make phone calls, schedule a day and time to do so. Limit yourself to what can fit on a sticky-note. Do not overload your schedule and plan for adjustments.
  1. Avoid procrastination.
Do not avoid stressful situations: avoid procrastination! The effects of stress are cumulative; when we avoid problem-solving, stressful situations typically get more stressful. Small stressors are easier to handle than big stressors, so take action while the situation is most manageable. Sometimes, stressful situations resolve quickly and other times, re-strategizing is necessary. Be flexible.

Stress-management takes practice. With each small obstacle that is overcome with proper stress management techniques, the confidence in your own ability to manage life’s unexpected moments will grow. Take a deep breath, remember that recovery is a time of renewal, and when you are renewing yourself from the inside out, expect some stressful times. What you can’t do, is let stress overwhelm you and set you on a course for relapse.

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