Dealing with Stress in Recovery: 5 Tips to Building Healthy Stress-Management Skills

Since stress is an inevitable part of life, learning stress-management is essential to living a healthy life. If you’re recovering from addiction or substance abuse, building a stress-management strategy can help you maintain sobriety and a lifestyle of wholeness.  

What is Stress-Management?

Throughout our day-to-day lives, we all experience stress and stressors. But not all stress is “bad.” According to the Handbook of Stress and Health, “mild to moderate levels of stress, within a person’s coping range, can ultimately produce positive outcomes.” In other words, some stress can be helpful in situations when we need to complete a task, or are in a competitive activity such as sports. Feeling a bit of pressure can help us yield our optimal performance and efficiency. 

But, as the Handbook explains, when stress becomes too much and “exceeds one’s coping capacity, [it] can result in threats to physical and psychological well-being.” In fact, unmanaged stress can become chronic and even lead to mind, body, and behavioral dysfunctions. 

When stress becomes a threat to our well-being, it usually comes by way of these four types: 

  • Physiological: Poor nutrition, lack of access to health care, threat of physical danger
  • Environmental: Noise and/or air pollution, unclean water or sanitation facilities
  • Social: Present interpersonal conflicts and dangers, or PTSD  
  • Cognitive: Negative thinking patterns that induce anxiety and depression

What is Stress-Management?

For those in recovery, learning to manage stress and situations that cause high amounts of stress is central to the healing process. It has been well-established that stress is linked to how the brain experiences addiction. The parts of the brain that regulate emotions and even chemical reactions are triggered by stress and how we cope with it. 

One such response is the “fight-or-flight” response. This refers to the biochemical and physiological changes that happen in the body when an alarm response to stressors—real or imagined—goes off. When this triggers, the brain may turn to its craving or previous source of comfort, which for those in recovery are harmful substances. 

The five stress-management tips below are intended to help you deal with stress that you face in your day-to-day life. Pursuing science-based and holistic treatments in professional settings can also help you analyze situations and people that trigger feelings of stress. As someone in recovery, you know that by making a plan and taking positive actions, anything is possible—even with stress!

  • Support of family
  • Respect and support of peers and friends
  • Healthy work environment
  • Desire to be a responsible parent
  • Response to a spiritual or higher power

Why is Stress Management Important for Those in Recovery?

As more research is done on the positive effects of long-term treatment, medical professionals are starting to recommend treatment times between three and six months. The results are showing significantly better outcomes. Fortunately, there are a variety of ways a person can pursue longer treatments.

  • Residential treatment: For many people, residential treatment is often step one on their healing journey. A person can gain important coping skills in residential treatment, as well as personal insights and a sense of stability. But in order to maintain this stability and long-term sobriety, addiction and substance disorders require treatment throughout life.
  • Individual and Group Therapies: Groundbreaking psychotherapies, cognitive behavioral therapies, and pharmacological therapies cannot be implemented overnight. Sometimes these more in-depth treatments can take an additional month after detox and are often a key part of achieving the maximum benefit from residential care. Moreover, these options can reduce the likelihood of needing to repeat more treatments in the future.
  • 12 Step Programs: Developing life skills is a key part of the recovery process, especially after more formal treatments. One of these skills is learning how to become self-sufficient while also staying in a recovery community that is committed to supporting the person. Building off of residential treatments and different forms of therapy, a person can learn to cope with stress and triggering emotions with the help of their 12-step group. And when they come to a difficult time or situation, having a group to turn to can save a person from turning to substances or other harmful behaviors.
Tip #1: Address Unnecessary Stress

Some stressors are out of our control. But some are well within our scope and can be easily avoided. This tip helps you address stress by removing it altogether. Once you begin to pay attention, you may be surprised by how easy it is to avoid recurrent stressful situations. It can be as simple as leaving 10 minutes earlier each morning so you are not stressed in traffic, or choosing to not talk to your high-maintenance friend right when you’re off work and have depleted energy. This doesn’t mean ignoring situations that actually need your attention though. The key is to plan ahead and learn how to say “no” if you’re already at maximum capacity. If you know a triggering person is going to that party, you don’t have to go. If talking about the addiction recovery process is too much to handle alone, relegate these topics for your therapy sessions. Saying “no” when you need to is one of the best strategies for successful sober living.

Tip #2: Learn New Ways to Work With Stressful Situations

Never stop learning! For example, cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT) teaches you to adjust your reaction to situations, including stressful ones. If you’re feeling like your stress-cup is full or that you have repressed feelings, pursue a type of talk-therapy you haven’t tried before. When we acknowledge stressors under the surface, we can then work through different scenarios to address or remove the stress. 

Dealing with relationship stress may look like pursuing couple’s therapy. If a relationship can find a healthy compromise and path of communication, stress can’t remain in the shadows for long.

Tip #3: Changing Your Attitude

There are many ways to start changing our attitudes. The goal is to reframe the problem so that it allows you to logically process stressful situations with positivity and agency. For avoiding substance use relapse, this is one of the best tools to work with. 

If this is something you struggle with, dialectical-behavioral therapy (DBT) might be right for you. Talk to your treatment center about this approach, which emphasizes emotion regulation, mindfulness, stress tolerance, and interpersonal stability. DBT can help you build emotional and cognitive strength while addressing the people, places, and situations that trigger stress.

Tip #4: “Letting Go” Helps You Reduce Stress

 Since we know that some stressors can’t be avoided, sometimes the best strategy is the practice of letting go. With a network of support around you, acceptance of painful situations is one of the most effective ways to move forward. Such situations might include the death of a loved one or the dissolution of a marriage. A posture of letting go combined with grief management therapy can help you see the present clearly and imagine a brighter future. 

Many relapses happen when a person attempts to control a situation beyond their capability. Substance abuse and addiction are not the answer to the pain. Instead, reach out to someone you can trust for help and practice the wisdom of letting go at the right time.

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