By Patty Bell, Capo by the Sea

Someone who’s done the hard work to break the grip of addiction obviously looks forward to their new life in recovery. Now, with a new lease on life, they envision making up for lost time and moving forward with new goals and renewed purpose.

What is not anticipated, however, is the anxiety that often accompanies early recovery. While anxiety is a common occurrence that everyone experiences from time to time, for someone in the early stages of establishing a new sober lifestyle, stress and anxiety can become problematic.

Because anxiety can get out of control and trigger a relapse, it is essential to access anxiety coping strategies as needed. This requires being mindful of our current mood state and taking early action to thwart the anxious feelings before they can threaten sobriety.

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety disorders are extremely commonplace in the U.S., with about 40 million people struggling with some type of anxiety. The symptoms of anxiety become a “disorder” when they disrupt daily life and cause impairment in functioning. Many people experience intense stress and anxiety symptoms without developing an anxiety disorder.

The symptoms of anxiety, however, are highly uncomfortable and may begin to undermine addiction recovery. Some of the situations that can spark the feelings of anxiety include:

  • Feelings of loneliness
  • Fear of the unknown, of living in sobriety without the crutch of a substance
  • Living in a new setting
  • Starting a new job
  • Working through financial issues that resulted from substance use
  • Sleep problems
  • Making amends and repairing relationships

When we feel stressed or afraid, it triggers a biological response called the fight or flight response. The hormones that are secreted, including cortisol and adrenaline, trigger the symptoms of anxiety. Anxiety symptoms may include:

  • Irrational feelings of worry, fear, or dread
  • Muscle tension
  • Fatigue
  • Increased heart rate
  • Shallow breathing
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sweating
  • Irritability
  • Headaches
  • Gastrointestinal distress
  • Trembling
  • Withdrawing socially; isolating

Because anxiety symptoms are associated with relapse, learning how to manage the stress response in recovery is vital.

Anxiety and Early Recovery

Starting over in recovery is both exhilarating and frightening. Early recovery is exciting, but it is also a very vulnerable phase of the process. The new coping techniques learned in rehab haven’t been tested out yet, and new healthy habits haven’t yet gelled. Those early months are like a training ground, complete with plenty of bumps and potholes.

When we think back on those times we were faced with change—starting a new job, moving, going to a new school—it is easy to understand how it feels in early recovery. It truly feels like you are walking around in a new world, unfamiliar and even a bit scary. Adjusting to new routines, new friends, and possibly new surroundings just takes time. Meanwhile, until your sober support network is firmed and you’ve made some new sober friends, it’s kind of like walking around blindfolded.

Managing stress levels is critical to successfully maneuvering those early months of recovery. To succeed, practice the following stress-reduction methods often, until they, too, become part of your regular wellness routine.

Coping Strategies for Anxiety in Recovery

Fortunately, there are some tried and true coping strategies to deploy when stress rears its ugly head. These are easily accessible coping methods and available free of charge.

Mindfulness. Mindfulness refers to the practice of guiding our thoughts toward the present moment, and acknowledging the sensations around that moment. Mindfulness teaches us to pause and listen to our present emotions. We direct our awareness to the source of the pain or disturbance without critiquing it. We learn to accept it as a reaction to a triggering thought or event, knowing that it will soon pass.

Yoga. Yoga is an ancient Eastern practice that involves movement, specific poses, and mindful breathing. Yoga’s physiological effects help regulate the stress hormones. Yoga can impact brain chemistry by increasing levels of GABA in the brain, reducing the symptoms of anxiety. There are multiple types of yoga to explore, including free online yoga classes.

Deep Breathing. One of the quickest ways to reduce stress and anxiety in early recovery is through the practice of deep breathing techniques. Try this deep breathing exercise to immediately reduce blood pressure and heart rate: Inhale slowly to a count of five; hold the breath for a count of five; exhale completely to a count of five. Repeat 4-5 times.

Journaling. Journaling is a powerful recovery tool that not only allows you to reflect on and record the many facets of your journey, but also performs double duty as an aid for processing emotions. Getting your worries and fears onto paper helps to “dump” them out of your mind where they would otherwise fester and lead to feelings of stress and anxiety.

Working Out. Exercise is one of the most effective actions you can take to reduce feelings of anxiety. As soon as you feel stress bubbling up, get outside and go for a run, a brisk walk, a bike ride, or a hike. The physiological response, such as the release of endorphins and the production of serotonin and dopamine, will swiftly reduce anxiety and improve mood.

Meditation. Meditation is a type of mental exercise that has been practiced for thousands of years. It involves being intentionally focused on a mental image or visualization that leads to enhanced awareness and spiritual growth. Sit comfortably in a quiet location with your eyes closed while focusing on your breathing. When your mind starts to wander, gently return your attention back to your breathing process.

Grounding. Grounding, sometimes called earthing, refers to the practice of becoming physically united with the natural elements. This is accomplished by walking barefoot or simply standing—in the sand, on the grass, or even in the dirt—to connect therapeutically with the earth. The idea behind grounding is to reduce the effects of stress by connecting with the earth’s natural electrical energy.

Preparing for life in recovery should include planning for managing stress as it arises. These actions can help reduce anxiety, reinforce sobriety, and thereby protect recovery.

About the Author

Patty Bell is the Interventionist and Family Relations Manager of Capo by the Sea, a luxury addiction and dual diagnosis treatment program located in South Orange County, California. After her own successful experience with the recovery process and journey, Bell decided to be part of Capo’s team and program that was individualized for each client’s specific treatment needs. Bell’s passion to share her own positive experience with others, while being a living example of the freedom found in recovery, is what motivates her to guide clients toward their own stable, long-term recovery.

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