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 moment is going to 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 add to update and maintain your sobriety toolbox.
The (Messed Up) Messages We Receive About Stress and Drinking
Plop yourself down on my proverbial couch for a moment and let’s dig at these emotional roots.
Stress is a factor in everyone’s life – yours, mine, even your asshole 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, 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.
Clearly, we are not okay.
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’s only going to 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. Funny enough, fathers aren’t really bombarded with the message that they need to have a beer to take the edge off of parenting, but I digress.
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.
Stress, Sobriety, & Addiction
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 going on 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, then 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 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.
Healthy Ways to Manage Stress in Sobriety
So how do we do it? How do we deal with all the bullshit life throws our way without drinking?
I’m going to bucket this into two categories: regular, everyday stress and BIG stuff (deaths, breakups, a car accident, etc.).
Let’s start with the BIG stuff and what you should do when life gets REALLY tough.
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 is going to 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.
2. Ask For Help
After you’ve had a good cry, check in with yourself. If it’s too much, say so.
You should always know who can you call in a crisis. Do you have a best friend? A family member? A partner? Who can you call up to be there for you at a moment’s notice?
Do not be afraid to reach out to this person and say, “I’m not doing so good. I need you.” Let them help you. Allow them to listen, give you a hug, or whatever else you need.
If you’re at a place in life where there isn’t someone like that for you, then go to an AA meeting (or similar recovery program). There are people there who can and will help you.
In the long term, I would also suggest getting a sponsor and/or therapist to help you manage your stress in sobriety.
If you have underlying mental health issues, it is especially critical to lean on your professional support systems as they are the people best equipped to give you the care and tools you need.
3. Change the narrative in your head
Once bad news has a chance to set in, that’s when the self-sabotaging thoughts come out to play. Your brain gets berated by a voice telling you that this is too much. You need to drink.
Remember, your brain is a little different.
Your prefrontal cortex is likely impaired by heavy drinking, so your impulse control is lacking.
You also likely have lower levels of D2 receptors in your brain, which means your brain needs a heavy hit of dopamine. In short, you are not chemically or structurally wired to handle massive stress in a healthy manner right now.
That does NOT mean you get to relapse. It just means you have to work a little harder to get through this.
Get tough on yourself
The second you feel yourself spiraling and reaching for your keys to run to the liquor store, I want you to stop and really think about what you’re going to do.
Let’s say it’s a breakup that has you out of sorts.
If you go out and get trashed right now, at the very LEAST, alcohol is going to end up amplifying how sad you are and make you feel even worse.
Chances are you will send a regrettable text (or twenty) or call your now ex who will, by the way, know that you’re out getting wasted. What’s that going to do?
Or you’ll hop on social media and do some emotional unloading you can never take back, embarrassing yourself, and possibly your ex.
If you get TOO out of control, maybe you’ll hook up with someone to try to take the pain away. Or put yourself in a dangerous situation that you’re too wasted to navigate intelligently.
The common thread in all of these options is that by drinking you can ONLY make things significantly WORSE.
That alcohol is going to do NOTHING for your chances of moving on or reconciling with your ex. In fact, it’s more likely that you’ll screw up any chance at reconciliation by whatever horrible behavior or decision you make after you’ve had a few.
Getting wasted is not going to change the fact that your relationship has ended.
So the next day, not only will you STILL be single, but you’ll have a wretched hangover, most likely some regrettable memories from the night before, and zero days sober.
And for what?
You still feel horrible. Nothing about your situation is different. And it didn’t even work. You’re still in pain.
4. See a professional.
I don’t care who you are, EVERYONE could use a little support from a professional when tragedy hits.
But if you’re someone who is just learning how to manage day-to-day emotions without crutches like alcohol, then you especially need to seek out help when something devastating happens.
If you already have a counselor, book an urgent session with them. If not, find someone who can see you right away. Call an alcoholism support line. Go to an AA meeting in person or online.
Additionally, try online counseling. That’s what I do! I use BetterHelp and it has been by far the BEST counseling experience I have ever had, which is saying a lot because I have had nothing but negative experiences thus far.
There are free and affordable resources available to you and you need to use them. Stress in sobriety is the primary cause of all relapse. You are valuable, your sobriety is valuable, and it’s worth protecting at all costs.
Access should not be a barrier to help.
Soberish is proudly sponsored by BetterHelp. If you have tried (and failed) to find a therapist who has the knowledge and background to help you navigate your specific issues, try BetterHelp. Learn more about my counseling journey with BetterHelp or visit their website below.
Okay, what about the everyday stuff?
Back in my heavy drinking days, EVERYTHING was a reason to drink. It was my number 1, 2, and 3 method for decompressing.
I knew that other people did things like go to the gym, go for walks, write, cook, or basically any non-self-destructive activity that helps take the edge off, but me? I was a one-trick pony.
Learning to handle emotions in a healthy way after you’ve been a heavy drinker is a little like learning to walk again after being temporarily incapacitated by injury.
Intuitively, it all feels wrong. And it’s frustrating as hell.
I’m a grown woman! WHY do I have to learn how to recognize when I am feeling sad and do this silly breathing exercise? I’m not three years old! I’m fine… really I am.
But this is part of the process.
Now that you are on your way to being a healthy, full-functioning, teetotaling adult, you need some tools for dealing with stress in sobriety.
Whether it’s a kid who won’t listen, jobs that suck the life out of you, or a spouse who can’t get on the same page – life is going to keep happening. It’s best you make a plan for managing it.
Strategies for Managing Everyday Stress in Sobriety
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 don’t ever fully attend to our responsibilities.
Our life primarily is serving our addiction 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.
“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.”
Let’s examine some ways we can become this mythical unicorn of an adult who doesn’t need alcohol to handle life’s worries.
1. Get an exercise routine.
Do-pa-mine! Do-pa-mine! Exercise is a fabulous way to boost WHAT?
Okay, you get my point.
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 a time out and going outside 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.
Take the need for exercise seriously and make sure it’s something you enjoy. You do not want exercise to be another thing you stress over. I’ve spent countless hours trying to talk myself out of going to the gym, but I have never, ever regretted going.
Like anything else, making exercise a part of your routine takes work and some mental prodding, but it WILL make you feel better.
Seriously. You need to meditate.
For now, I want to reiterate that mindfulness and meditation are important tools in your stress management toolbox and that even five mindful minutes a day can make a big impact long term.
You’ll be calmer, more clear-headed, more relaxed, and less emotionally reactive.
3. Find a creative outlet.
Whether it’s journaling, painting, taking up a new knitting hobby, or some kickass cosplay, find something you can do that helps you express yourself and your emotions in healthy ways.
On a side note, I highly recommend adding journaling to your routine. There a bazillion benefits available to you and requires 5-10 minutes of your day.
Outside of being just a really good thing to do, volunteering actually has a lot of mental health benefits. It feels good to help other people.
Research has shown that 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.
What’s not to like?
Stick with it
I know this stuff is hard. It’s hard for everybody, but especially for people who have resorted to unhealthy coping mechanisms in the past.
Sobriety is stressful enough without piling on all the regular, stressful life stuff that never goes away. It’s easy to get overwhelmed.
Take time for yourself. Make a plan for how you’re going to manage everything and make your mental health and recovery a priority right now. You got this!