How to relax without alcohol
I spent nearly a decade under the sway of alcohol addiction, and towards the end of my relationship with it, I thought I “needed” it to unwind in the evening. Of all the stages of my recovery—immediate detox, forming new habits, embracing a new life, and maintaining sobriety—the step I remember most vividly is discovering new ways to spend my evenings. Here are four tips I have learned to help you face evenings without alcohol:
Prepare ahead of time for challenging evenings
If re-learning how to live life without alcohol was easy, we’d have done it already. The fact is, there will be nights you struggle with unease and discomfort. Any of the following are common in individuals newly learning how to spend evenings alcohol-free:
- Anxiety and/or depression.
- Difficulty falling asleep.
- Feeling excluded from nightlife activities that revolved around drinking.
An added trap is the phenomena of the “pink cloud”: a period early in getting sober when the brain and spirit, freshly freed from the depressive effects of alcohol, feel like a million bucks, all brand-new and excited about life again. Because it’s a temporary phase, it can set up the false expectation for the recovering individual that life is permanently great forever now, secretly blindsiding them to the challenges they might face when they do find themselves bored or depressed one night.
It’s important to set up defense mechanisms now for the potential future you that might encounter these triggers so that you aren’t negotiating them for the first time when you are suffering acutely from the challenge. The anxious or depressed mind may be weaker than the happy mind, so plan ahead on good days for challenging evenings.
Here are a few examples of ways that you can prepare for these evenings and cope with triggers:
- “It was really fulfilling and satisfying cooking this nicer-than-usual dinner for myself. I’ll make a note of how good this felt, and if I feel anxious later this week, maybe I’ll try this again to keep my hands busy.”
- “There are a lot of meetings on my agenda at work tomorrow, some with people who can get under my skin. That might put me in a bad mood as I head home and is the type of scenario I’d used to drink after. I’m going to make plans with a friend to see a movie and buy the tickets now, so I’ll have something else to look forward to.”
- “I’m thinking ahead to Saturday’s birthday party for my mother. I know my uncles will be there and they often pressure me to drink. I should practice my responses now, so I’m not coming up with it on the spot.”
Accept small amounts of discomfort as “work worth doing”
Often, we turn to alcohol out of “experiential avoidance”: a desire to avoid our experiences as they are being presented to us, and instead modify or replace or ignore them. This is often borne out of emotions such as fear, loneliness, or an unwillingness to accept a challenge or conflict in one’s life or self. The alternative to avoiding one’s experiences is mindfulness: the willingness to be present for one’s experiences as they present themselves without struggling to alter them, accepting the soothing and uncomfortable alike.
A review of the academic literature on the topic by the Substance Abuse Journal finds across the board that groups practicing recovery that includes mindfulness-based exercises experience significantly greater freedom from cravings than groups that do not include such exercises. These include meditations, quiet walks, moments of reflection, and continued awareness of the moment one is living in.
Ask yourself: “Isn’t it okay to feel less than great right now? Must I feel good all of the time?”
Many things that are worth doing involve pain and discomfort, such as: sweating through discomfort when working out for the good of your body, dealing with the confused and awkward phase of learning a new language, getting frustrated when practicing an instrument and you can’t do a part right but practice is how you get better. This, too, is a period where I accept feeling uncomfortable today for greater things tomorrow.
Enduring a period of discomfort and allowing yourself to feel bad is work worth doing, just like a workout or difficult lesson.
Rediscover what you loved before alcohol
Recovery is the perfect chance to fall back in love with the hobbies you set aside when drinking became more important than them. There are more hobbies in the world than I can list, so I will share some that worked for me—perhaps they will inspire you or remind you of things you can rediscover.
- Competitive Sports. I used to play racquetball but had stopped because I usually began drinking immediately after work and didn’t want to stop to attend my league match. Once I was sober, I rejoined the league and, as a nice perk, found my body performing a little better every week that I put between myself and my addiction. Of course, there was a bit of a rude awakening at first as I came to understand just how much damage I had done by being sedentary and putting on extra weight, but that faded over time. (Do make a note that some competitive sports such as bar league softball or volleyball might have a social drinking component, so watch out for these).
- Gaming. I had set aside my long-time loves, Magic: The Gathering and competitive StarCraft II, because I didn’t care to stay sober enough to play them competitively. It was more important to me to keep a buzz going than to make wise and accurate plays that kept me moving up the ranks. I rediscovered both these games shortly after recovery and went on to attend every Friday Night Magic for months. I eventually got a tattoo of it across my chest as a reminder of how fundamental it was to my recovery.
- Creative Pursuits. For me it was DJing. For another recovering friend of mine, they rediscovered how to play the guitar. Another paints. Hobbies like these can be excellent artistic avenues for telling your story and sharing any pain or shame you might feel from your addicted days.
Three other things to drink
There are several tasty alternatives to try instead of alcohol. Try one of these beverages the next time you want something fun to drink:
I thought, throughout the time I was drinking heavily, that tea was flavorless and weak. What I didn’t realize was that continual infusion of tongue-scorching harsh liquors that coupled the act of swallowing to feeling a buzz was destroying my palate for any subtle notes. Once I stopped drinking and my ability to discern minor flavors returned, I understood what I had been missing. Being unable to appreciate the charm of a good tea because I was too busy drinking whiskey was like being unable to feel being tickled by a feather because I was used to being hit by a sledgehammer. Now, I drink tea every night.
The same charming substance that gets us up in the mornings, but with no caffeine so that one can still fall asleep.
A premium soda such as a Jones or Virgil’s
When I stopped drinking, I realized after some time that there was a particular hole in my mind that wasn’t being filled: the idea of a nice, premium beverage. Tea and decaf coffee were all good, but I had gotten used to the idea from my drinking days that some occasions just called for a real fancy beverage, something that costs more than a few dollars and stands out and says “You’re drinking something special.” These premium sodas help hit that nail on the head. They’re a bit pricey, which keeps them for special occasions only, but that fact helps make them feel like a minor celebration, which is exactly the role I needed them to fill.
Hayes SC, et al. “Measuring experiential avoidance: A preliminary test of a working model. The Psychological Record.” Southern Illionois University. 2004, Web. Accessed 11/08/2016. http://opensiuc.lib.siu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1359&context=tpr
Marcus, Marianne T. “Mindfulness-Based Therapies for Substance Use Disorders: Part 1.” PubMed. US National Library of Medicine/National Institute of Health. October 2009. Web. Accessed 11/08/2016. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2818765/