We’re often told in addiction support groups that we should be cautious of extreme states which can lead to us feeling stressed. A popular phrase used in support groups to describe this is HALT (hungry, angry, lonely, tired). While there is no doubt that these types of extreme state can have a toll on your sense of well-being, I would argue that they are a reality of everyday life and we need not be fearful of them—they can actually benefit our recovery.

We live in an age where the demands on us are high. Jobs are stressful and demanding; with workloads forever increasing as resources decrease. Home life is challenging. We literally spin plates trying to ensure we manage everything: keep a clean home, pay bills on time, do a weekly food shop, go to the gym, and tend to any jobs around the house. That’s all before we have fun. Managing a social life on top of all of that, can be the icing on the cake. Adding a stressful life event, like a death, can tip us over the edge—and potentially risk relapse—if we are not prepared.

The reality is that when we live in active addiction, we don’t have these responsibilities—or if we do, we don’t fully attend to them—we are barely functioning, only serving our addiction. Getting sober, involves rebuilding a life that includes increased responsibility—that can exacerbate stress.

We have to be careful, however, to not take on too much at once. We have to first build a solid foundation of recovery that can handle adding new responsibilities. But, some of us don’t have that luxury—we may already have a family to see to as well as coping with being newly sober. Some of us have sick parents to look after, or a business to run. This is an example of us not being able to live in that perfect state of equilibrium all the time—life simply isn’t like that.

Whether you’re managing lots of responsibilities at the same time as being newly sober, or are adding responsibility slowly, you will still experience stress. It is a reality of our modern day life.

But we’re too often told to be fearful of it, as a state we should avoid, so as to not impact our recovery. I feel that is setting an unrealistic expectation of life. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that to avoid stress is just as impactful as avoiding your feelings. So when you do experience stress, you have no reference point of how you handled it last time—you’re kind of out on a limb. Not to mention that you’re comparing yourself against that unrealistic expectation that you shouldn’t be experiencing it and jump to the logical conclusion that you’re somehow going wrong in your recovery. It actually means that you’re recovery is stronger for juggling several commitments at the same time.

I’m here to say that I have handled extreme stress throughout my five years of recovery and, while sometimes unpleasant, I am stronger for it. In just the last year, I have experienced the following stressful events: my brother committing suicide, travelling from the UK to Australia and back in 5 days for his funeral, packing up my life and moving to the US with no job or home secured, moving to city where I didn’t know anyone and starting a business at the same time, successfully running a business where my income is uncertain from month-to-month as I grow my business, dating, the end of intimate relationships, betrayal, family dysfunction, losing big contracts because of others inappropriate involvement, moving away from 12 step fellowships and gaining the confidence to overcome others fear around that, episodes of depression, and sickness. This is not an exhaustive list. But you can get a flavor of how my stress levels have been elevated.

Stress, like feelings, no one chooses to experience. What makes us resilient and strong in our recovery, however, is how we handle what is an inevitable reality of life. To me, recovery is all about riding the wave of life and not letting the big waves sway us back to avoidance or escapism—or worse, relapse. Here are the techniques that I have learned to ride those big waves:

  1. Using stress relieving outlets like journaling, art, the outdoors, and creative projects.

  2. Processing stress and the emotions is provokes through challenging exercise: long bike rides, lifting heavy weights, spinning, and hikes.

  3. I regularly attend a support group, Refuge Recovery, which provides me with the support of talking through my problems and gives me a community of like-minded people experiencing similar life issues.

  4. I practice restorative yoga regularly. This calms my nervous system like nothing else and I always feel rested and rejuvenated.

  5. I have several go-to people that I discuss my stress with on a regular basis.

  6. I ensure that my body is supported for stress nutritionally and with supplements. I eat regular meals and snacks, that are full of vitamins and minerals and are minimally processed. I also take the supplement Ashwagandha which helps the body process stress.

  7. I try my very best to get a minimum of 7 hours sleep a night.

As with any strong feelings, you may feel like it is too much to handle—even when you are doing everything that you can—which is why it is really important to keep in regular contact with your physician so that they can support you in the best way possible. This ensures that you reduce risks of relapse.

Whatever your experience in recovery, stress will affect you at some point. You can be ready for it, by ensuring that you’re taking care of your recovery holistically, and knowing that it isn’t abnormal to be experiencing it. In fact, feeling our experience is what makes our recovery alive!

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How to Handle Stress in Recovery and Its Risk Toward Relapse
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