It is common to experience high levels of anxiety in the early stages of recovery as you undergo major changes without the ability to use substances as a crutch. How to deal with this? It’s all about developing new coping strategies.
It is all too common, while in the early stages of addiction recovery, to experience what feels like insurmountable anxiety. The entire structure of your life has changed, and this contributes to a very real sense of loss and worry. The good news is that this is a normal part of early recovery, and it will eventually pass.
However, it is important for the person to develop new coping mechanisms that help you navigate this uncertain phase. The success of your recovery depends on it.
How Alcoholism and Anxiety Are Linked
Clinical research shows us that mental illness and addiction often go hand-in-hand. One study found that alcohol and major depression co-occur about 30-40 per cent of the time. While these two conditions do not always occur at the same time, those who suffer from alcoholism are likely to have suffered from depression at some stage as well.
The same study found that those suffering from alcoholism are also much more likely to experience anxiety. Specifically, people who suffer from an anxiety disorder are three times more likely to struggle with alcohol abuse, too.
These figures affirm what those who are involved in addiction communities (either as treatment specialists or addiction sufferers) have long understood. Mental health problems – and specifically anxiety and depression – are intimately linked with addiction. The drug of choice becomes a form of self-medication.
Self-medicating in this sense can actually be effective for a period of time. While not sustainable, it can provide an escape from anxiety and depression. This creates a serious challenge for someone who has recently decided to get clean. You may cross the threshold and commit to a new life without substances, only to find yourself flooded with the anxiety that they were helping you to control.
The Problem with Self-Medicating for Anxiety
The obvious problem with using drugs or alcohol to self-medicate is that they introduce a host of new problems into your life. Even if the substance is at least partially effective in controlling anxiety, it introduces new anxiety-inducing problems at work, at home and in your relationships. More and more of the substance is required to maintain what feels (at least to you) like a manageable state of being.
If you are struggling with anxiety to begin with, it is absolutely critical that you are prepared for the potential of anxiety-inducing situations in early recovery. Simply being conscious of the fact that you are likely to experience heightened anxiety during early addiction recovery can really help you cope.
And to be fair, even those who do not have a history of anxiety disorder may experience a heightened sense of worry and frustration during the early stages of recovery. Addiction is always a coping mechanism – a means of finding relief from painful or uncomfortable emotions. Without this means of coping, distress is bound to result.
Stress Is Normal in Early Sobriety
There is nothing wrong with feeling anxious in early sobriety. If anything, embarking on a new life journey is cause for a healthy amount of anxiety. Think about the way you felt the last time you moved to a new neighbourhood, enrolled at a new school or reported for duty for your first day at a new job. These are all stressful situations, and virtually anyone would experience some level of anxiety if they were in this position.
But entering recovery is more all-encompassing than starting a new job or moving to a new location. Not only do you have to change your friends and set routines. You also have to re-evaluate your home life, your downtime and practically every coping mechanism in your arsenal. In short, you have to change everything about your daily life – and that is not easy.
What to do When Early Recovery Triggers Your Anxiety
Bouts of anxiety are to be expected in early recovery. Here are three overarching strategies you can employ to keep anxiety at bay during those critically important early days:
1. Look for New, Constructive Ways to Occupy Yourself.
One of the most difficult things to deal with in early recovery is the amount of time that you have on your hands. Before you got sober, your downtime was spent using; everything else was secondary. In the earliest stages of recovery, boredom is all but inevitable because that substance is missing from your life. Having a plan for a constructive way to keep yourself occupied is crucial. This is why at The Edge, we focus on physical activity as a means of helping our clients channel their newfound energy. Our clients train for triathlons, Muay Thai boxing and more.
2. Join a Support Group.
In early recovery, it is important to have an ongoing source of support. To begin with, participating in a group gives you something to do with your free time when you are still struggling to establish a new way of life. It is ideal if this group is designed with people in recovery in mind. At The Edge, we facilitate this with our extended treatment programme, which even includes on-site sober living options at a reduced rate for recent graduates of the programme. Furthermore, every major city has addiction recovery support groups like AA and NA that can be a lifeline in those anxiety-inducing early days.
3. Find a Mentor.
If you are part of a group, you will have no problem finding someone who is willing to be a mentor or sponsor in early recovery. A good mentor is someone you can trust. Ideally, you want to find someone who also struggled with anxiety in early addiction, as they will be able to offer pointed advice on how to get through it. This person will also be there for you when feel like the anxiety is too much to deal with. At The Edge, we offer our former clients the chance to become mentors for new clients. In recovery, you can always find someone who has experienced the same challenge that you have.
Develop New Coping Strategies for Sustainable Sobriety
The act of getting sober requires finding new, more constructive coping strategies to replace substance abuse. This is a primary objective at addiction treatment centres like The Edge. We aim to help our clients develop new coping strategies that will genuinely help them overcome the challenges they will face at every stage of recovery.
If you are having difficulty maintaining your recovery, rest assured that you are not alone. Please do not hesitate to reach out to us. We can help you develop new, more sustainable coping strategies that promote a healthy, ongoing recovery.