Stress is one of the major factors that can trigger a relapse ⁠— but it doesn’t have to be. Managing stress is possible with the right techniques.

Stress may be a normal part of life, but it can be particularly troublesome for people who are in recovery. Financial and health concerns, as well as family and relationship conflicts, are just a few of the stressors that can surface and persist during recovery. If left unresolved and unmanaged, they can lead to relapse.

Researchers believe that stress is one of the leading causes of relapse. Research shows people with a substance use disorder are more sensitive to stress, which may make managing stressors without returning to drugs or alcohol difficult. However, this does not mean that relapse is inevitable when you experience stress. To the contrary, understanding the relationship between relapse and stress can empower individuals to understand their triggers and take steps to manage stressors and maintain sobriety.

Learn to Identify Stress

If you used drugs or alcohol to cope with stress or to get through the day, it can be difficult to recognize whether or not you are feeling stressed. Or, you might be experiencing chronic stress and forgotten what it feels like to not be stressed.

Some typical signs of stress include:

  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Stomach issues
  • Racing thoughts
  • Anger or irritability
  • Overeating or undereating
  • Memory issues
  • Lack of focus

Recognizing stress is the first step toward addressing it in a deliberate, mindful manner.

Identify Potential Sources of Stress

Now that you can identify when you are stressed, it’s important to ask: what is causing the problem? Can you define a particular person, place, or situation that is producing these feelings? If you are unsure, some ways to help you figure it out include taking the time to reflect alone, speaking with a trusted friend or therapist and keeping a journal to track your stressors.

Learn Some Stress Management Techniques

Stress is sometimes an unavoidable biological response to certain conditions or people, such as your boss or a crowded elevator. When you learn to predict these situations, you may have a bit more control over your emotions. Depending on the scenario, you can use the 4 A’s of stress management: avoid, alter, adapt, or accept.

  • Avoid. If you can, avoid any unnecessary stressors. Don’t seek out places, events or share time with people that cause you stress and remind yourself it’s okay to say “no” to stressful situations.
  • Alter. If you do find yourself in a stressful environment or situation, find a way to change it quickly to make you more comfortable.
  • Adapt. When there are stressors that you cannot change, adapt by changing the way you look at or approach them. Having a sense of humor or reminding yourself that it’s a temporary circumstance can help get you through.
  • Accept. Sometimes you just have to “accept the things you cannot change.” You may find that you feel less stress when you give up the fight and cease trying to control what is beyond your influence.

Other Ways to Beat Stress in Addiction Recovery

Proper self-care is another important strategy to pare down your stress levels in recovery. If you are not taking good care of your body and mind, there is a good chance that they will not take care of you. Some of the ways that you can take care of yourself and cut down on stress include:

  • Limit your caffeine and nicotine intake
  • Get regular physical exercise
  • Get proper sleep
  • Practice meditation
  • Talk about your feelings
  • Keep a journal

Learn How to Handle Stress in Addiction Recovery

Simply stopping the use of drugs or alcohol is often not sufficient to maintain addiction recovery and avoid relapse. Everyone has sources of stress in life, but you can learn to effectively manage that stress and develop other coping skills and strategies that don’t include drugs or alcohol. Learning these skills is essential to avoid a relapse.

Gretchen Pruett
Editor – Gretchen Pruett
Gretchen Pruett is a writer and editor based out of Detroit, specializing in academic and evidence-based content. Read more

Robinson, Lawrence; Smith, Melinda; Segal, Robert. “Stress Management.”, October 2019. Accessed October 29, 2019. “Dealing with Stress: Ten Tips.” Accessed October 29, 2019.

Buczkowski,Krzysztof; Marcinowicz, Ludmila; Czachowski, Slawomir; Piszczek, Elwira. “Motivations toward smoking cessation, re[…] and current smokers.” Patient Preference and Adherence, October 1, 2014. Accessed October 29, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.