Stress Management in Recovery

Stress plays a big part in everyone’s life and most of us don’t know how to manage it. During times of stress people who abuse Drugs or Alcohol tend to reach for a drink or get ‘high’ because this is and has been their ‘vice’ for stress. When an individual is working toward sobriety and recovery, their ‘vice’ is no longer there. It is imperative to their recovery to learn new healthy and positive ways to manage stress.

The Fantasy: Get sober, and everything will fall neatly into place.
The Reality: Get sober, and watch your stress level explode.
One of the many paradoxes surrounding recovery is that it can bring out the best and the worst in alcoholics and addicts. This is especially true of those who operate under stressful conditions.

Before slipping into recovery, alcoholics and addicts had a sure-fire antidote for stress: Get high. Stressed out? Open a cold beer or pour a stiff drink. Had a hard day? Roll up a joint. Feel beat? Lay out a couple of lines. These solutions didn’t work in the long run, of course, but they sure did offer temporary relief. In other words, they worked.

Then along comes recovery, and “poof”—the temporary relief is gone. What now? The answer is stress management.

Stress management is not the same thing as stress relief. Stress management is a long-term solution to millions of short-term problems. A true stress management “program” focuses more on internal sources of stress (the ones we create for ourselves in our own heads) than it does external sources (the ones we see around us and blame for the way we feel).

In order to understand the true nature of stress and stress management, it helps to conceptualize the issue in terms of 1) The Problem, and 2) The Solution, as follows:

The Problem
There are two primary sources of stress—external sources & internal sources.External Sources of Stress
Change of any kind

Internal Sources of Stress
Internal dialogue (self-talk)
Old “tapes”
Thinking style
Problem solving style

The Solution
There are two primary methods of dealing with stress—stress reduction & stress management.Stress Reduction Techniques
Reducing External Sources of Stress
Relaxation exercises
Physical exercise
Watching TV
Listening to music

Stress Management
Confronting Internal Sources of Stress
Living in present moment
Healthy diet
Regular exercise
Daily spiritual practice
Balanced lifestyle

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The traditional approach to dealing with stress is to blame the external sources of stress for the way we feel and then to rely on stress reduction techniques to deal with them. That approach never has and never will work.

Effective stress management requires two basic things:

  • Alter our lifestyles to accommodate healthy daily practice.
  • Go inside of our own heads and confront and change our dysfunctional thinking.

The first task is by far the simplest. It follows common sense. Regular exercise, healthy diet, plenty of rest and sleep, putting first things first, etc. will prepare us to handle the circumstances of our lives with more efficiency and energy.

The second task presents the real challenge. This is especially true for alcoholics and addicts, whether in recovery or not. Alcoholics and addicts are notorious for narrow, close-minded, self-centered, self-righteous thinking. Nevertheless, there are solutions, and they do work.

When I started studying Zen Buddhism some years ago, one of my teachers told me that the first thing I needed to do was to acknowledge and accept the fact that everything I knew “for a fact” was incorrect. He said that I could take a shortcut through the spiritual learning process if I would just discard everything I knew “for a fact” and start over with a fresh, uncluttered mind.

When I resisted his assessment of my knowledge base, he challenged me thusly: “Carefully consider the source of your information.” At that point I had to really stop and think about where and from whom I had learned my beliefs, opinions, and attitudes. The sources were less than reliable. They included my alcoholic parents, the public school system, a judgmental southern protestant church, my alcohol and drug abusing friends, television programs, and so on.

By the time we reach adulthood, our heads are filled with what Albert Ellis, a noted psychologist and researcher, calls “common upsetting beliefs.” And these common upsetting beliefs have everything to do with stress and stress management. Indeed, they are at the heart of the matter.

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The following list of statements suggests some of the beliefs that most people carry around in their heads, at least in some form or another:

  • “I should be competent in most or all respects.”
  • “Some people are bad and deserve to be punished.”
  • “Events in my life should always go the way I want them to.”
  • “Events, circumstances, and other people are what cause my upset feelings.”
  • “People should mind their own business and leave me alone.”
  • “I have a right to worry and feel upset about dangerous and unjust situations.”
  • “It is easier to avoid difficulties and responsibilities than to face them.”
  • “My early childhood experiences control my feelings and behavior as an adult.”
  • “I have a right to feel upset over my problems or over other people’s stupid behavior.”
  • “There is an absolute right and wrong concerning every situation.”
  • “The world should be fair, and in the end, justice must prevail.”
  • “There are some things that I know for absolute certain are true.”
  • “Some people should be different than the way they are.”
  • “I have the right to seek revenge on people who hurt me.”

Many of the situations that we encounter on a day to day basis threaten our attitudes and beliefs. When this happens, we typically react defensively and/or angrily and/or fearfully. Hence, upset feelings and stress.

24 hour addiction helplineDoes the following attitude/belief sound familiar? “That idiot cut me off on the highway. He’s stupid and wrong. He’s dangerous; he scared me, and he could have hurt me. I have a right to feel upset and angry. If I ever see him again, I’m going to give him a piece of my mind.” The idea here is that in reality, the driver did not cause me to feel upset. My thinking did.

This conceptualization of internally generated stress makes even more sense when considered in terms of “negative self-talk.” We almost continually “talk” to ourselves, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. A lot—perhaps most—of that talk has a negative twist to it and represents some variation of the common upsetting beliefs listed above.

Consider the following list of negative messages and possible positive counterparts.

Negative Self-Talk Messages Positive Self-Talk Messages
  • “I’m such an idiot; I can’t believe I’m so stupid.”
  • “He’s such an idiot; I can’t believe he’s so stupid.”
  • “I hate her. She hurt me, and she’ll be sorry some day.”
  • “This is terrible! This is horrible! I can’t stand this! This is killing me!”
  • “He’s rotten to the core. He deserves to burn in hell.”
  • “I should be able to handle this; other people can.”
  • “He makes me so damn mad!”
  • “He’s never there when I need him; I just can’t trust him.”
  • “I can’t believe this is happening to me!”
  • “My upbringing prevents me from loving or trusting other people.”
  • “I just can’t stand the way some people act.”
  • “Oh great! She’s mad; what did I do now?”
  • “Life’s a bitch, and then you die.”
  • “She’s wrong, and I’m right. I know I’m right. I’d bet my life on it.”
  • “Oops. I made a mistake; I’ll be more conscientious next time.”
  • “He made a mistake; we all make mistakes, even me.”
  • “I feel hurt. I wonder why I’m taking her attitude and her behavior so personally.”
  • “I must be taking this situation too seriously. It’s obviously not the end of the world.”
  • “I don’t like or agree with his behavior, but it’s not my place to judge him.”
  • “I’m doing the best I can with who I am today, and that’s okay.”
  • “I don’t have to give him the power over me to make me feel angry.”
  • “I am responsible for myself and my own feelings. I can choose to rely for support on people who can be there for me.”
  • “I wonder; how could this situation turn out to be in my best interest?”
  • “My childhood has interfered with my willingness to trust. I will learn to trust as an adult.”
  • “I am responsible for my own behavior—and no one else’s.”
  • “She must be having a bad day. Maybe I can help, or maybe I can just let her have a bad day.”
  • “I will experience whatever quality of life I decide to have.”
  • “She has her opinion and beliefs, and I have mine. She believes hers, and I believe mine.”

counselor_sideThe most powerful stress management tool in the world has nothing to do with eliminating stressful situations from our lives. It doesn’t even have anything to do with other people “acting right” or “doing things my way.” Indeed, when stress levels are considered within the framework of “stressful thinking,” it becomes apparent that there is no such thing as an inherently stressful situation. There is only stressful thinking, and stressful thinking is a by-product of our attitudes, opinions, and beliefs. To manage stress, then, we monitor our self-talk and alter its content.

Of course, learning to consciously listen to and confront our common upsetting attitudes and beliefs and our negative self-talk takes practice. One extremely helpful tool is to carry with us at all times one or more questions that we ask ourselves whenever we feel upset, angry, and stressed out.

Examples of good questions include the following:

  • “What am I telling myself about this situation that is causing me to feel this way?”
  • “What are my negative thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs about this situation?”
  • “What are my (unreasonable) expectations about this person or this situation?”
  • “What are my (unreasonable) expectations about myself in this situation?”
  • “How am I taking this situation too personally?”
  • “How am I taking this situation too seriously?”
  • “How could this situation possibly turn out to be in my best interest?”
  • “How am I judging myself or someone else?”
  • “How important it this—really?”

At it’s best, the process works as follows:

  • I encounter a situation.
  • I feel stressed out (angry, afraid, etc).
  • I accept responsibility for those feelings.
  • I ask myself the intervening question.
  • I answer the question honestly.
  • I shed the stress.

Ah, yes… if only it were so easy. Obviously, it’s not. But it is that simple.

The bottom line is that we are responsible for the way we feel. We are responsible for whether or not we feel stressed out. We have the power to choose serenity over stress.

The question is, “Am I willing to walk the walk?”

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