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Why You Need A Plan For Managing Stress In Sobriety

At some point on this journey (maybe it happened already), you’re going to be faced with a high-stress situation that threatens your sobriety. Some moments will hit you hard and make you want to drink.

It could be a bad day at work, a fight with a partner or close friend, or a cranky toddler who won’t stop screaming. Maybe it’s something more serious, like a breakup or death.

Regardless of WHAT it is, you need to be prepared for those “run and hide or tear your hair out” moments that life throws our way so that your sobriety remains intact. That’s why it’s critically important to make a plan for managing stress without drinking.

A person with hands over their face and ears wrestling with stress in sobriety
managing stress in sobriety

The (Messed Up) Messages We Receive About Stress and Drinking

Stress is a factor in everyone’s life – yours, mine, even your idiot boss’s. It’s part of the human experience. Let’s begin by acknowledging that you will never be able to escape stress.

That option is off the table.

In the past, it’s very likely that you (like me) chose to self-medicate with alcohol to manage the stress in your life. And honestly, it’s no wonder. Look around you!

The notion that we need a drink to calm down and relax is everywhere – in movies, TV shows, advertisements, and popular culture.

And if you’re a mom? Hoo! There is an entire niche market dedicated to convincing you that wine is the only way you’re going to survive this whole parenting thing.

In the United States alone, it is estimated that there are 5.3 million women drinking in a way that endangers their health.

I’ve written about mommy drinking culture before, so I won’t go too far into it here, but this is a massive problem that will only get worse. And it’s not just mothers who are taught this.

Business professionals, leaders, blue-collar men and women home from a long day’s work – we’re all supposed to pour a drink or crack open a cold one to take the edge off our lives.

And if you’re a business professional AND a mom? Double whammy.

My point is when you take away alcohol from someone who has been using it to self-medicate, that person now has to relearn healthy coping strategies for stress.

It sucks. It’s hard. But it must be done.

The Connection Between Stress and Alcohol Abuse

There is a lot of great research out there about the cause-and-effect nature of stress on addiction and substance abuse.

One such study was conducted by the psychiatrist Richard Friedman who is cited heavily in an article on Addiction Center, which I will refer to frequently in this section.

What’s happening in your head that makes you drink too much or down a box of Oreos when you’re sad?

Your brain is craving a dopamine rush, especially in moments when you’re feeling down and out. It wants the balance restored.

If your brain knows that alcohol relaxes it or that cookies are delicious and sugar is brain candy, guess what you will do?


What Friedman’s work has uncovered is that we don’t all have the same amount of dopamine (D2) receptors in the brain. From the author:

“Today, the more D2 receptors you have, the higher your natural level of stimulation and pleasure — and the less likely you are to seek out recreational drugs or comfort food to compensate.” He cites studies that found both stress and the use of addictive substances contribute to lower levels of D2—even in otherwise healthy participants. That deficiency in receptors continues long after you stop using drugs too, with former users being less motivated and discontent. These factors contribute to the desire to seek reward chemically.”

If your life is under a constant barrage of stress, it will change your brain in ways that make you more susceptible to addiction and substance abuse.

When we become overwhelmed by stress and lack the tools to deal with it in healthy ways, we seek out substances (drugs, alcohol, food) that can give us the dopamine boost we need to cope.

That is the process we are trying to unlearn as we get further into sobriety.

How Alcohol Increases Our Stress Levels:

It’s also important to understand the connection between alcohol and how we interpret and experience stress.

Alcohol negatively impacts a variety of body systems, including one called the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis.

The HPA Axis maintains your physiological balance between what you do and don’t perceive as stressful.

People who drink regularly (even 1-2 drinks per night or just on Fridays, etc.) experience changes in their HPA Axis that result in the release of more cortisol, the stress hormone, into your body.

The resulting hormonal imbalance negatively affects your baseline stress levels in ways that make you more stressed even when you’re not drinking.

Over time, you’ll notice that your fuse gets shorter, and you experience more mood swings.

This is where we start to enter a dangerous cycle of self-medicating stress with alcohol which, in turn, makes us feel more stressed out by everyday life.

This happened to me towards the end of my drinking days. I couldn’t even experience getting cut off in traffic without becoming consumed by explosive rage. Minor inconveniences felt like world-ending phenomena.

I became someone who needed a drink to feel normal and not stressed or upset.

It Is Normal To Experience Increased Stress and Anxiety in Early Sobriety:

One of the main reasons it’s important to proactively create a plan for managing stress in recovery is that it is highly likely you will experience increased stress and anxiety levels when you quit.

That’s because it takes your brain and body time to adjust to the lack of alcohol.

Heavy drinking can change the structure of your brain as well as the delicate balance of gut microbiota and neurochemistry that help you regulate your mood.

When you quit drinking alcohol, those imbalances remain.

On top of that, you still have to deal with regular, everyday stresses (big and small). It’s a lot to take on at once, and many people struggle. That’s why finding ways to manage stress in recovery naturally is essential.

Stress is a Relapse Trigger:

Studies have long shown that stress is a major factor in relapse. Negative mood and stress are both associated with increased cravings and urges to drink.

Aside from the social pressure and wide acceptance of drinking as a way to take the edge off stress, other factors make stress an uphill battle for people in recovery.

Here’s a brief synopsis of why stress is such a powerful relapse trigger:

  • Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms: If you’ve learned to cope with stress by drinking, you’ll instinctively want to turn to alcohol whenever you feel stressed.
  • Habit: Self-medicating stress with alcohol is also a bad habit that people have to break in recovery. There’s an instinctual element we have to undo. Long day at work? Grab a beer. You’ll have to unlearn that behavior.
  • Altered Brain Chemistry: Alcohol alters your brain chemistry in ways that make it harder for people who drink heavily to regulate their moods, and this can make resisting the urge to drink when stressed even harder.
  • Low Feelings of Self-Worth: If you are trying to quit drinking and struggle with feelings of low self-worth, possibly due to your drinking, that can also pile on stress levels that make you more susceptible to relapse.

One of the most heartbreaking aspects of stress and sobriety is how alcohol is responsible for so many factors that impair our ability to manage stress in healthy ways. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle in that way.

But there is hope. We can heal the damage from drinking and learn healthy ways to regulate our emotions and manage stress simultaneously.

Healthy Ways to Manage Stress in Sobriety

So how do we do it? How do we deal with all the stress life throws our way without drinking?

It’s important to note that we have to attack the problem from multiple angles. We need to learn coping strategies for everyday stress that can help us navigate stressful events as they happen.

But we also have to make larger lifestyle changes that will allow us to heal our brains and bodies so that we can become people with a stronger foundation for resilience and emotional regulation.

1. Learn Mindful Breathing Exercises.

This is first and foremost. When you get hit with some shocking news that throws your world into disarray, it is important to give yourself room to process what is happening.


Oxygen in. Breath out.

Taking deep breaths slows your heart rate, lowers your blood pressure, and stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system, which produces a state of calm.

Breathing at this moment will help clear your mind enough that you can actively decide how to handle what’s happening instead of going into a self-destructive, emotionally reactive autopilot.

Here’s an example of a breathing exercise you can do to manage stress:

In addition to doing breathing exercises, you should also consider taking up a meditation practice in sobriety. This will help you repair some of the damage to the structure of your brain from drinking, as well as help you become less emotionally reactive.

Even ten mindful minutes per day, done consistently, can make a world of difference.

2. Get Counseling.

I highly recommend getting a therapist or joining a support group to help you manage your stress in sobriety.

A trained professional can help you identify some of your negative thought patterns and give you strategies for dealing with them.

This is especially important if you have underlying mental health issues like depression and anxiety that you were previously using alcohol to cover up.

Alcohol abuse and mental health issues are often co-occurring disorders that you need to treat simultaneously.

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3. Start an exercise routine.

One of the unfortunate effects of chronic drinking is that it reduces and disrupts the production of dopamine and serotonin. In sobriety, we have to find natural sources for both while our brains and body reset.

Exercise is one such source.

You need a physical outlet that will allow you to expel some of that stress and give your brain a much-needed chemical boost. Aerobic activity, especially, is great for this.

You do not need to train for a marathon. It could be something as simple as taking a twenty-minute walk outside.

In fact, taking time out and going for a walk (when possible) is a really good in-the-moment stress coping strategy that will allow your brain to reset and deal with the problem in a more clear-headed way.

Stress triggers your body’s “fight or flight” response which takes a toll both physically and emotionally on your body.

If you don’t find ways to manage your stress in sobriety, it can lead to some serious health problems as well as an increased chance of relapse.

Like anything else, making exercise a part of your routine takes work and some mental prodding, but it WILL make you feel better.

4. Find a creative outlet. 

Whether journaling, painting, taking up a new knitting hobby or discovering your inner chef, find something you can do that helps you express yourself and your emotions in healthy ways.

5. Volunteer

Outside of being just a good thing to do, volunteering has a lot of mental health benefits. It feels good to help other people.

Research has shown those much sought-after feel-good brain chemicals spike when we volunteer.

It’s also a fabulous way to distract yourself from your problems, avoid social isolation, and form new, healthier social networks with people who care about the same stuff as you.

6. Practice Yoga

Yoga can be a helpful tool for reducing stress because it combines physical movement, breathing techniques, and meditation to promote relaxation and reduce tension in the body and mind.

It’s been shown to:

There are many types of yoga practices, including some that are geared toward helping people recover from trauma, like in the video below:

7. Spend Time in Nature

Spending time in nature can be a great way to reduce stress and promote relaxation. And there are many ways to achieve this. You can hike, garden, or hang out at the beach.

Numerous studies have shown the positive effects of spending time in nature. You’ve probably experienced this for yourself. People will go for a walk to “clear their heads.”

Exposure to green spaces has numerous mental health benefits like:

  • Reduces symptoms of depression
  • Lowers stress levels in the body
  • Lowers anxiety
  • Positive mood
  • Reduces negative emotions
  • An overall feeling of improved psychological wellbeing
  • Reduces feelings of isolation
  • Promotes a sense of calm
  • Lessens ADHD symptoms and levels of aggression

In addition to helping us manage mental health conditions, opting for activities in nature can also improve our physical health and well-being. Studies have shown that spending a minimum of two hours in nature can:

  • Lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels
  • Reduce nervous system arousal
  • Enhance immune system function
  • Improve memory and cognitive function
  • Improves attention span

These are all things that can help people in recovery manage stress better in the long term.

Final thoughts on Managing Stress in Recovery:

Remember that at the core of your drinking is your brain’s craving for a big dopamine rush. Because life is inherently stressful, this presents a new challenge.

How do you give the brain and body what it needs without slipping back into old, destructive ways?

In an article in Recovery Village, Olivia Pennelle breaks it down nicely.

She talks about how when we’re in active addiction, we never fully attend to our responsibilities.

Our life primarily serves our desire to drink, and we’re just going through the motions beyond that. So when we get sober, we have all these responsibilities that we have to really face now, and that adds stress.

She writes:

“But we’re too often told to be fearful of (stress), 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 your recovery is stronger for juggling several commitments at the same time.”

Stress management is a learned skill – something many people drink to avoid. But we’re here now, and this is the challenge we face.

But face it we must, even if we do so kicking and screaming.

I don’t want to oversimplify these strategies or trivialize the challenges you’re facing right now. You will get better at managing stress and experience reduced stress levels over time.

It’s sort of like starting the gym. At first, it takes everything you’ve got just to show up. You’re not entirely sure what you’re meant to be doing, and the exercises are awkward and painful. Plus, the results take time.

You have to have faith that the process is working, even if incrementally.

If you can get into that mindset, you’ll be able to succeed, and I am rooting for you!

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