Dealing with anxiety in addiction recovery
It is very important to address anxiety in addiction recovery. Many people who abuse substances like drugs and alcohol do so at least in part to self-soothe. The oblivion and release offered by substance abuse can help to numb unwelcome emotions, or at least to cope with them. It can help to diminish anxiety.
This represents something of a crutch. Then, when you begin recovery, you essentially have this crutch removed. You have to face these unwelcome emotions head on. You need to learn how to cope with them in constructive, forward-thinking ways, which is incredibly hard.
Therefore, it’s very common for those going through addiction recovery to experience anxiety. Your crutch is gone, which is scary. You have to think about the future, worry about facing each day without chemical help, worry about relapsing, and go through physical and emotional withdrawal.
Anxiety is normal. Most people suffer with it at some point, in some way. Luckily, there are some coping mechanisms you can put in place. They may not help you to solve your anxiety – it may be ever present. However, getting rid of anxiety isn’t the goal. Learning to manage it and live with it is.
Anxiety in addiction recovery
We all kind of know what anxiety is. However, if you’re to tackle it, you should have quite a clear picture. You need to know what we mean by anxiety, and what it means to your addiction recovery.
In short, anxiety is a natural response. It is your body reacting to stress and fear. This is a good thing in the short run, in an evolutionary setting. It allows us to adapt to danger and stressors. However, persistent anxiety can be very detrimental to your health and wellbeing. If you struggle with anxiety – a feeling of stress and/or fear – for more than six months then it is likely you have some form of anxiety disorder.
There are quite a few types of anxiety disorder. Some of the more common ones include phobia, panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), social anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
Each anxiety disorder has its own list of symptoms. Everyone will experience any form of anxiety in their own way. You may find anxiety in addiction recovery is different to other kinds. However, there are several common symptoms that often come with anxiety. These include:
- A sense of nervousness and/or tension
- A sense of upcoming danger or vulnerability
- Sleep problems such as insomnia
- Trouble focussing
- Obsessive thinking or behaviour
- Avoiding triggers and potential triggers, even when doing so is counterproductive
- Gastrointestinal (GI) problems
- Increased heart rate and rapid breathing (hyperventilation)
- Excessive sweating
- Body pain and tension, often in the back, shoulders, head and jaw
- Trembling and/or persistent tremors
- Weakness and fatigue
Most of us will experience these every so often. It is completely normal to. However, as above, anxiety disorders will typically be longer term and fairly persistent. They can severely impact your life and overall health and wellbeing.
Anxiety and substance abuse disorder.
As we’ve already seen, many people turn to drink and drugs to deal with anxiety in the first place. This is a form of self-medication. It can quickly develop into dependence and even outright addiction.
At the same time, substance addiction rewires the brain. It causes the brain to depend on the substance in question, becoming entirely reliant on it. Coming off drugs causes withdrawal as the brain is starved of the drugs on which it is reliant. Among many other symptoms, withdrawal typically causes anxiety.
Therefore, addiction and anxiety are often bedfellows. Sometimes anxiety is already present, a contributory factor to addiction. Then again, sometimes anxiety is a result of addiction recovery. Regardless, anxiety will decrease your chance of maintaining sobriety. It will severely impact your health and wellbeing.
You will need to come to terms with anxiety if you are to make a success of your addiction recovery. Luckily, there are some common coping mechanisms you can put in place. These are tips and tricks to help you manage your anxiety and lead a happier, calmer life.
Treating anxiety in addiction recovery
‘Treatment’ seems an odd word for anxiety. You will not be eliminating it. You won’t be healing yourself from it. It will still be there. Rather, treatment in this context means coming to terms with your anxiety and learning to better manage it.
Anxiety should be addressed in any plan for addiction recovery as you learn how to live independently of substance abuse and the crutch it represents. In a formal setting, this might include medication. It will often include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and maybe some form of holistic therapy.
Managing your anxiety
Ultimately, though, it will be up to you. CBT and the like will teach you the tools you need, but you have to use them as you overcome your own anxiety in addiction recovery.
In this vein, I’ve put together some of my favourite coping mechanisms for managing anxiety. If you put a couple, or a few, or even all of these in place, you will find it far easier to live a calm life with your anxiety under wraps.
Our breath and breathing patterns affect us quite profoundly. We associate long, slow breaths with relaxation. Similarly, we associate short, sharp breaths and elevated heart rates with anxiety and fear. This is because this is how our bodies respond to these stressors.
However, it works both ways. Anxiety can cause short, sharp breathing. But short, sharp breathing can cause anxiety, or at least make anxiety symptoms worse.
This gives us a good degree of control. Control is one of the main things we need as we suffer anxiety in addiction recovery.
It is hard to slow a fast-beating heart. However, you can easily control your breathing. Slow it down, consciously. Slow, deep breathes stimulate the vagus nerve. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system, counteracting the sympathetic nervous system – the fight-or-flight response that kicks in when we are scared or anxious.
Aim for six breaths per minute. This rate seems to be optimal in remaining calm and promoting efficient oxygen exchange, keeping the heart rate low.
In addition, focus on your exhalations. Exhalations stimulate the vagus nerve more fully and more efficiently than inhalations. Extending them further than inhalations will therefore calm you more readily. Try aiming for four second inhalations followed by six second exhalations.
If you want a way to quickly alleviate the symptoms of anxiety at any given moment throughout your addiction recovery, grounding might be the answer. It’s a great way to climb down from stress.
When we are anxious, our thoughts typically do a couple of things. They might race. They might freeze. Or they might do both at once (trust me, it happens). You might find yourself focussing obsessively on any give problem, worry, or concern. You might catastrophise, talking yourself into ever greater anxiety.
Break this loop. Ground yourself in the present.
There are a few methods for grounding yourself. I personally favour certain chigung and yoga meditation techniques. However, there are simpler methods. The 5-4-3-2-1 method is a particularly accessible, easily performed form of grounding.
To perform the 5-4-3-2-1 method, you should try to take note of:
- Five things around you that you can see
- Four things that you can touch
- Three things that you can hear
- Two things that you can smell
- And finally one thing that you can taste
This might seem a lot to do and remember. However, it gets easier with a little practice. You could also go for a toned down version, say the 3-2-1, where you notice:
- Three things you can see
- Two things you can hear
- And finally one thing that you can taste
Grounding like this will bring you back to the moment. In turn, this will give you a sense of peace and calm.
Physical activity is one of the healthiest things you can take part in, both for your mind and your body. For our purposes today, it can help you manage anxiety, calm yourself, and lighten your mood. It does these by releasing endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine. These all serve to relax you and cheer you up, whilst also giving you a bit of an energy boost.
Exercise might also make your brain less reactive to stress, shoring up your defences against anxiety. Preliminary evidence suggests it may do this by affecting your brain’s hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. These areas connect to the amygdala, the limbic system, and the hippocampus. They relate to several psychological functions, including motivation, emotional processing, mood, and maybe even addiction.
However, you needn’t sign up to an Iron Man competition. A simple evening stroll around the local park could be enough to settle your nerves and help you to manage your anxiety levels.
Steer clear of caffeine
It is a good idea to keep caffeine intake low if you’re dealing with anxiety through your addiction recovery.
Caffeine has a great many benefits. For example, it is an antioxidant, can lift our moods, and gives us that lovely buzz that we all spend a fortune on lattes for. However, a little goes a long way. It makes you alert and gives you an energy kick by stimulating your sympathetic nervous system. This simulates our natural fight or flight responses, raising our heartrates, flooding us with endorphins, and ramping up our stress levels.
It can also interfere with our sleep patterns, especially if we take in within four hours or so of going to bed. This can make insomnia worse and can increase the amount of fatigue you’re feeling – making you need even more coffee, ironically.
Talk it through
Anxiety gets worse in isolation, as do most mood disorders and mental health concerns.
You need to talk to somebody about your anxiety. It is almost guaranteed to lighten the load. Even simply stating to someone that you are feeling anxious helps to quell your anxiety.
I’m not talking about fancy therapists, here. Tell a friend, a family member, your spouse. Simply talk them through how you’ve been feeling, why you think you’re stressed out, and how it is affecting you. A support group, your sponsor, or any local community mental health organisation could be a great start.
It will make your anxiety seem more manageable. As it becomes more manageable, you may be able to view things more objectively. This will take a lot of stress away from choices and decisions that may have otherwise seemed daunting.
Journaling is also a great idea for getting your thoughts straight and reducing your anxiety through addiction recovery. As with talking to people, it will give you a venue for getting it all out, uncorking the stress, and getting to the heart of the matter. It can be cathartic and, again, it can make everything seem more manageable.
Connect with others
Another very effective way of managing anxiety is to connect with others. Even if it is outside of your comfort zone. Knowing you are not alone in your anxious thoughts can bring some comfort and connecting with like minded others can help to take you out of your head.
Our platform at Recoverlutions offers you the opportunity to connect with your tribe and build your own recovery community. You can also benefit from accessing our Wellness hub. This is a safe space for you to learn and grow in your recovery. The professionals within our Wellness hub can teach you a multitude of proven methods of managing anxious symptoms, including: breath work, yoga, meditation, nutrition and exercise classes