No matter who you are, there are days that are going to test your limits. For many of us, those days are far too frequent. Finding healthy ways to cope with stress is critically important to living in a world that is increasingly designed to spike our cortisol levels.
And we need to do it without using alcohol, comfort food, or any other unhealthy shortcuts.
Dealing with stress effectively must also go beyond the use of self-care “bandaids.” It involves redesigning your lifestyle so that you are able to manage stress and become a less emotionally reactive person.
It’s not an easy, quick-fix problem. I’m on the path, but far from reaching optimal zen master status. Things still get under my skin and I don’t always manage it in the healthiest way. But I’m lightyears ahead of where I used to be.
Learning to cope with stress is an ongoing process.
After 2.5 years of sobriety, I rarely catch myself thinking about alcohol when I’m stressed. I HAVE, however, been known to eat an entire pizza as a way of dealing with difficult feelings.
The internal response is the same.
Something terrible happens, my brain goes into fight or flight mode. Before I know it, I’ve scarfed down something I would not normally want to eat.
In my previous life, I would’ve drunk an entire bottle of cider and chain-smoked three cigarettes before coming up for air and processing what was going on. Then I would’ve had several more until I was on another planet.
None of those coping methods are healthy. So the challenge becomes how to cope with stress without resorting to unhealthy, quick fixes like drinking.
Why You Need A Plan To Cope With Stress
If you don’t get a handle on your stress, it will get a handle on you.
This is especially true for people with a history of alcohol abuse and/or emotional eating.
The tips I’m going to provide you are all ways you can redirect energy you otherwise do not know what to do with. These strategies will also improve your ability to handle stress in the long term.
Understanding Cortisol And What It Does To Your Body
Let’s talk about what’s happening inside your body when you feel stressed. When something stressful happens to you, it triggers the “fight or flight” response.
Your body releases the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. “Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure, and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose, and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues.”
Source: Mayo Clinic
Once the perceived threat has passed (say, the lion has decided you aren’t worth its time), your body returns to normal. The problem comes when the perceived threat lingers.
When we’re overwhelmed, our body is flooded with cortisol and our serotonin stores (happy chemicals) begin to deplete.
Our bodies don’t like that and desperately want to return to a balanced internal state. Sometimes we get a little desperate.
Alcohol and Cortisol
It’s understandable why intense anxiety and overwhelm would have us grasping for the quickest fix to make these feelings go away. (Hellooooo happy hour!)
Your brain either desperately needs a dopamine boost or a way to opt out of the situation entirely. This is why stuffing your face with cookies feels good. Sugar and alcohol both spike dopamine levels in the brain.
If you do not have healthy coping mechanisms for stress, you will be more inclined to use alcohol as a way to handle a very chaotic internal world.
The problem is it doesn’t work.
Unsurprisingly, chronic drinking actually increases cortisol levels in your body. It’s why you can wake up the next day gripped by anxiety and find yourself, over time, becoming more emotionally reactive to things that would not normally be a big deal.
What Happens When Your Cortisol Levels Are Too High
Chronic stress is extremely detrimental to your emotional and physical wellbeing. According to The Mayo Clinic, overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones increase your risk of serious health problems, including:
- Digestive Problems
- Heart Disease
- Sleep Problems
- Weight Gain (especially around the middle)
- Memory and concentration impairment
- Higher Blood Pressure
- Lowered immunity
- Increased inflammation in the body
- Decreased bone density
- Blood sugar imbalance
- Decrease in muscle tissue
- Suppressed thyroid function
Additional Source: https://www.verywellmind.com/cortisol-and-stress-how-to-stay-healthy-3145080
Because your health depends on it, I’m going to provide you with of things you can do to handle all that energy and maintain lower cortisol levels, none of which involve eating your weight in pizza, chain smoking, or finishing off a bottle of Jack.
Want to learn more about stress and the body? Check out this book: Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky
Redirecting Your Energy To Cope With Stress
In the moment, when stress and anger strike, you have to find a way to expel that energy to bring your cortisol levels back down. It is extremely difficult to deal with your problems constructively with that amount of emotional energy surging through your body.
Because you are NOT going to use wine or french fries to do this, you need healthier options to cope with stress. Here are some things you can do.
1. Start cleaning.
This is actually incredibly common in sobriety. A lot of newly sober people will joke about having spotless homes in the early days. I think there are several reasons for this. Keep in mind that the cleaning up will work for anyone, not just people struggling with alcohol addiction.
Okay, so why clean?
First, it’s a perfect activity to do when you do not want to think about anything.
Any time you do an activity that allows you to check out of your thoughts and maintain a singular focus, you’re engaging in mindfulness which is a special treat for a frazzled brain.
If I’m particularly worked up, my cleaning may become frantic and that’s perfectly fine.
These are good moments to try to clean some stubborn grout. Without fail, I feel better when I’m ready to stop and rejoin reality. I’ve exerted energy and given my brain a timeout which opens up space to handle the problem in a more clear-headed manner.
Research suggests that cleaning has mental health benefits as well. It gives people a sense of control over their environment and reduces cortisol levels, something desperately needed on days when you’re finding it difficult to cope with stress.
Even if you normally hate cleaning, you may feel differently when it becomes a useful way to get out of dealing with some bullshit long enough to clear your head.
2. Work out.
This one is VERY easy to talk yourself out of so before you can negotiate with yourself, grab your sneakers and just go.
Moderate exercise is an incredible way to boost dopamine levels naturally and reduce stress.
Lift heavy things. Grunt. Scream. Drop them on the floor. Hop on the treadmill or spin bike. Whatever calls your name, get after it.
However, there is a slight word of caution. Too much high-intensity training can actually spike your cortisol levels so be mindful about how you train.
Whenever I use the gym as a way to manage anxiety, I feel instantly better. My internal world is back in balance and I’m better able to tackle whatever’s going on in my external world.
I’ve heard stories of people in early sobriety who, out of nowhere, get the urge to run. These are often people who don’t even own a pair of running shoes. They just know that their body needs to move immediately.
So they go.
They put on whatever shoes are close enough and they run until their brain says, “okay, I feel better now.” If you have an urge to go run or do some push-ups or jumping jacks, just do it. Your body is telling you something.
Eventually, using exercise to cope with stress will become a habit. Not only will you become a calmer, more balanced person, but you’ll also look good in a bathing suit.
Where’s the downside?
3. Hit things.
There was a time when kickboxing was my go-to outlet for getting out my aggression.
Sobriety is hard because you have to figure out what to do with all those emotions you’ve been numbing for however long. There are times when it feels like ALL of those feelings are flooding your brain at once.
People who suffer from chronic stress are in a similar position where they’ve got a lot of pent-up “stuff” that needs to be dealt with.
So deal with it.
Some days you’re just pissed off and need something to do with it. If it interests you, take a boxing or kickboxing class. Try a martial arts class. You have so many options!
Experiment until you find something that works and make it a priority.
Don’t let anger live in your body. It will eat you alive. (See effects of elevated cortisol levels above for a reminder.)
For Times When Your Brain Won’t Shut Up
When you need to cope with the stress that is making your brain buzz, you may wish to find more cerebral activities to settle down. Here are some suggestions to add to your list.
Seriously. You need to start meditating.
Is there a better massage for a weary brain? I think not.
A 2013 study of the effects of meditation on cortisol levels found that after a four-day mindfulness program, participants’ cortisol levels were reduced by an average of 20%.
FOUR. DAYS. That’s it!
Taking just ten minutes a day to practice some form of mindfulness can help you control stress, decrease anxiety, and improve cardiovascular health. It’s also a helpful tool to help calm you in the moment. Meditation can help you maintain and lower cortisol levels in the long term.
With sustained practice, you’ll find yourself less emotionally reactive and better able to cope with stress in your life. The old you will start to melt away to reveal a more blissful, chilled-out version of yourself.
The style of meditation does not matter. Choose something you’re comfortable with and commit to practicing it for a minimum of 10 minutes per day.
5. Watch something to take your mind off of things.
This isn’t useful for “punch the wall” kind of bad days, but it’s good for the moments that make you want to cry and wallow. It’s a way to hit the reset button.
If I’m having a particularly off day when I’m feeling worked up and can’t figure out why I’ll watch a comedy special or an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Just one episode.
Netflix can easily turn into an unhealthy avoidance tool. Don’t binge five hours of programming. Take an hour, get your mind right, and then tackle whatever’s going on.
6. Find your flow.
Hear me out. Flow is the state of being where you are so singularly focused and engaged in a task that you lose time. It’s also called being in “the zone.”
Reading and writing are my go-to activities for when I need to do something with my brain.
You need to find yours.
Some people take up hobbies like painting or knitting to get into the state of flow. Hobbies are our way of engaging in activities we enjoy so much that they enable us to forget about everything else for a moment.
Getting lost in a creative activity is a form of mindfulness.
Make sure it’s constructive. Losing time because you’re playing Call of Duty for seven hours is NOT what I’m referring to. I’m telling you to get a CREATIVE hobby.
If watching a million episodes of HGTV has led you to want to go to a thrift store and rehab an old chair, now is the time to do it.
A study in Western Australia showed that people who spent 100+ hours per year on a creative hobby had significantly better mental health than those who spent 0-99 hours per year. That’s a minimum of two hours per week.
Not a huge time investment, folks.
If you’re not sure what to do, think back to your old hobbies from youth. What did you like to do before adulthood got in the way? If you used to love playing guitar, give it another go.
Keep an open mind.
There’s an entire community of dudes on Twitter who have taken up knitting. Do whatever you want.
7. Go outside.
I currently live in a desert region where the average temp from May-October is a stifling 45C with a heat index of “I don’t even want to think about it”. SO if you live in a challenging climate, I totally get how this might be an issue.
HOWEVER, the majority of you do not and need to get your ass outside.
Taking walks in nature is scientifically proven to reduce anxiety and depression and improve overall mental health and physical wellbeing.
A 2016 study out of the UK showed that individuals who participated in a 10-12 week nature intervention program called “A Dose Of Nature” reported a 69% increase in self-reported well being.
Participants engaged in a variety of activities depending on the environment they lived in. Some went for walks, some did more meditative activities in nature, while others worked on conservation and woodland maintenance.
Of the 64 participants in the study, all of which had been formally diagnosed with mild to severe depression and/or anxiety, four decided to continue the study and two were able to reduce their medications. Members of the study ended up creating self-organized support groups to further the work.
It’s incredibly promising!
There’s a reason people say, “I need to get some air” when they’re feeling frazzled. It’s actually restorative.
Ironically, I used to say this as an excuse to go chain-smoke myself silly, but I digress.
Access should not be a barrier to help.
Play The Long Game.
If all you’re doing is managing cortisol spikes at the moment, you’re not going to get the results you need to maintain long-term wellbeing.
In addition to the “at the moment” things we do to handle stress, there are everyday things we can do to reduce cortisol levels in our body naturally.
Heavy drinkers are total shit at this. We are. It’s why getting cut off in traffic gets us so worked up that we think we need a beer as soon as we get home.
When I think back to all the things that made my blood boil during my drinking days, it is a wonder that I never keeled over from stress. How you operate on a daily basis greatly impacts your cortisol levels.
Our problem is that we are accustomed to chemically boosting our dopamine and lowering our cortisol levels with alcohol. Take that away and it’s easy to feel like a raging, emotionally unstable mess.
Those are the days the liquor store seems to call to us with blaring intensity.
One of the ways we shut that part of our brains off is by teaching it new, better ways to deal with stress. This involves naturally boosting our dopamine levels and repairing the damaged neural pathways that have left us completely unable to cope with life in a normal way.
In addition to everything listed above, you also need to:
8. Get enough sleep.
Getting a solid 7-9 hours of sleep is one of the best things you can do for your mental and physical health, especially in those early days of sobriety.
Sleep disruptions and deprivation will cause your cortisol levels to spike which is why you may feel like you are especially sensitive on days after you didn’t get a good night’s rest.
Click the post below to get more information about good sleep hygiene.
9. Focus on your diet.
Food and mood go hand in hand. Did you know that 90% of our serotonin receptors are in the gut?
Sadly, the Western diet is overly reliant on processed and refined foods which wreak havoc on our guts.
The simplest thing you can do to start healing your tummy is to eat whole foods and avoid processed foods that are known to cause inflammation. In addition to eating whole foods, you can try taking a high-quality probiotic.
A recent study has suggested that deficiencies in key nutrients like Omega-3 fatty acids, B-vitamins, Zinc, Magnesium, and Vitamin D can cause depressive symptoms.
In the same study, participants who strictly adhered to the Mediterranean Diet showed a 30% reduced risk of developing depression. The most common recommendations for dietary intervention to treat depression and anxiety? Fruit, vegetables, fiber, and fish.
A fabulous diet alone will not cure a mental illness, but it CAN improve symptoms and aid in a long term recovery and treatment plan. If you want a lifestyle that is designed to help you better cope with stress, you need to clean up your diet.
10. Avoid things that are likely to cause you stress.
It’s amazing how addicted to the drama of everyday life we can be. If you, like millions of people, catch yourself constantly checking social media, you’re intentionally exposing yourself to a number of stressors.
These things are designed to keep you stressed and wanting more.
If you feel like your world is spinning out of control, delete social media apps from your phone and allow yourself to exist solely in the real world for a while.
Beyond your digital world, you need to avoid engaging with people who contribute to your stress. I realize this isn’t always possible, but to the greatest extent, you can (even if temporarily), put some distance between yourself and the people in your life who raise your blood pressure.
Handling Your Stress From Here On Out
Chances are you’ve fallen into some pretty terrible habits when it comes to stress management. Whether it’s drinking to “relax” and quiet the stress party in your brain, smoking, or eating to feel better, your job from now on is to change the way you cope with stress.
It’s not easy and some of these things will take a while to produce results.
Here’s what I can promise you. They will all work. If you consistently stick with them, you’ll catch yourself a few weeks or months from now thinking, “Oh wow. This usually would set me off but I could care less now.”
It is one of the most liberating things you can do for yourself.
You got this.