How to maintain your sobriety long-term.
In the same way that heavy drinking was a sign that my life was in chaos, sobriety is my constant reminder that today, it is not. Every day, I maintain my sobriety by actively seeking to create and live the best possible life.
Now before you gag, let me assure you I am not going to come at you with hashtag platitudes and drivel. This will not be that.
It WILL be an honest list of the way I live my life now that I’ve got a couple of years of sobriety under my belt.
Which brings me to a gentle word of caution. This is what I do NOW. It would not have been possible to adopt all of these things at once when I first got sober. My brain would have exploded.
In the early days, you pick your battles and keep trudging forward, which is what this list is all about – my ceaseless mission to stay the course and never get complacent.
Let’s jump right in!
1. Create routines and stick to them.
Aimless free time has always been the biggest threat to my sobriety and overall mental health. If I allow myself too much time to be inside my head, I’ll probably find a way to feel stressed about something or invent a problem.
Routines give me structure, which gives me purpose, which in turn, keeps me busy. They will do the same for you.
My ability to maintain sobriety is largely predicated on my ability to create stability in my world.
Don’t get me wrong. I know the world is going to throw me curveballs. There’s nothing I can do about that. However, I CAN ensure that I am not the reason things get a little crazy.
What’s the best way to get started with routines?
First, you need to start with your mornings. I firmly believe that a well-thought-out and consistent morning routine is the foundation for an incredible life.
What’s in my morning routine?
My morning routine varies, but it usually goes something like this:
- Wake up and make my bed
- Do my 15-minute body scan meditation from Insight Timer.
- Move my body (10-15 minutes)
I purposefully do not say exercise because sometimes I just stretch or do some weird half yoga half ballet movements.
It’s my goofy way of getting the blood flowing.
I’m sure it’s quite a sight to behold. (My toddler has started imitating me and it’s way cuter when she does it.)
I don’t include breakfast in my routine because I don’t tend to be hungry until I’ve been up for an hour or two and then I eat. I NEVER skip breakfast.
If you’re looking for resources on morning routines, I recommend:
And of course, there are a bazillion articles on the internet that can help you get ideas for your routines. The key is to start small and build slowly.
2. Meditate every day.
I know I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: meditation will change your life! What it will NOT do is get you instant results like those weird poop teas everyone sells for rapid weight loss.
Healthline has a great list of meditation benefits that I’ll provide you with here:
- Reduces stress
- Controls anxiety
- Promotes emotional health
- Enhances self-awareness
- Lengthens attention span
- May reduce age-related memory loss
- Can generate kindness
- May help fight addictions
- Improves sleep
- Helps control pain
- Can decrease blood pressure
- Can be done anywhere
The bigger benefits definitely take a longer time with sustained practice to achieve, but there are some immediate wins you can expect. Taking even a few mindful breaths whenever you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed is magic for the body.
There are so many different meditation practices you can adopt, and it’s honestly up to you which to choose.
Don’t worry about whether this practice or that practice is better. The answer is: there is no right answer.
Find something you like (or, at the very least, don’t hate) and do it for five minutes a day. Once you get that perfected, increase your time. Even if all you accomplish is driving yourself mad for five minutes, I promise you that it did some good.
Here are my personal favorite meditation books:
Here are the three meditation apps I’ve used to help maintain my sobriety.
- Headspace – This is GREAT for beginners. The beginner course is free and then you have to pay for a premium subscription to get the rest of the courses.
- Insight Timer – This is another incredible tool, but it can be tough for beginners to sift through the options. If you’re someone who finds too many choices overwhelming, you may wish to start with a different app to learn what you like before moving here. Insight Timer is by far the most robust, free meditation tool out there.
- Calm – I actually used this app a million years ago before they did their big makeover. They’ve done a fantastic job overhauling and updating the features. I don’t currently use it because you need a subscription to access the majority of the good stuff. If I were JUST starting out, I would definitely consider subscribing.
3. Start exercising.
Exercise is a fundamental component of sobriety. It’s not just about getting fit or looking better in your swimsuit. Exercise can help you improve your sleep and have more energy throughout the day. You’ll also start repairing some of the damage you’ve done to your body by drinking.
Lots of people in early sobriety choose the gym to exorcise their demons (pun TOTALLY intended). There are several reasons for this:
- It’s a way to keep busy and distracted.
- The gym is a healthy way to get out some pent-up aggression.
- Exercise boosts dopamine levels in your brain, which is really important because you’ve just eliminated your primary source of dopamine (alcohol)
- It’s an extremely effective coping skill
- You’re likely to be surrounded by other people who are focused on health and wellbeing
That being said, don’t limit yourself to the gym. If you don’t like gyms, don’t go to them. Anything you do to get your heart rate up is exercise.
If you like playing basketball, go join a league. Interested in acrobatic yoga? Find a studio (and be careful).
How much exercise do you need?
Doing just 20 minutes of moderate cardio (defined as a heart rate of around 112) can improve your mood up to 12 hours after you exercise. That’s your entire day instantly upgraded.
You don’t need to spend hours in the gym or hitting the pavement. Twenty minutes of moderate effort – that’s it.
That being said, establishing an exercise routine requires building new habits, which isn’t easy. See my post on using habit stacks to develop healthy habits to learn more.
Be patient with yourself and don’t set yourself up for failure by trying to do too much at once. If ten minutes is more your speed, start there.
4. Create an accountability and tracking system.
I am much more consistent when I’m very intentional about WHAT I want to do and HOW I’m going to do it. Here’s a simplified version of what I write down:
- My big goals
- Smaller goals that will help me get there
- The benchmarks that will let me know I’m on track
- Space or a tool to track how I’m doing
Tracking tools like these help you remain focused on (and committed to) your goal. The more you focus on your goals, the less time you have to worry about drinking.
Besides, every time you meet a benchmark, it boosts your confidence and encourages you to keep going.
Accountability and tracking tools are also great for doling out reality checks.
You might THINK you eat relatively healthy, but after a couple of days of putting everything into a food tracker, you could be in for a rude awakening.
Oh, THAT’S how much fat is in one slice of pizza? I just ate four.
I’ve even made a tracking sheet like they give you in grade school for my refrigerator and put little star stickers on each day I stuck to my goal. Who doesn’t find stickers motivating? I call it my “Adult Chore Chart.”
If you prefer a more polished look, Amazon has similar trackers for sale.
Figure out what visual reminder will motivate you and keep you on track. Then stick with it and see what happens. It’s a healthy distraction that will put you on the path to building better, sustained habits.
5. Focus on eating high-quality, nutritious food.
Hippocrates famously said, “Let food be thy medicine.”
That’s what I want you to start doing. Look at your food choices in terms of which health benefit they can provide you.
Alcohol does major damage to the body, and I don’t just mean the hangovers. Tweaking your diet is one way to start the healing process. After years of heavy drinking, your body is most likely nutrient deficient and toting around some damaged tissue and organs.
Think I’m being hyperbolic?
Here are a few highlights of alcohol’s impact on your body from Alcoholics Victorious. You can read the full list here.
- Depletes your body of nutrients needed for healthy skin and hair (which is why you look like you aged 10 years after a particularly boozy weekend).
- Disrupts your kidneys’ ability to function properly, causing increased water output which means those much-needed nutrients are exiting your body before it can use them.
- Messes with your intestines which can lead to poor absorption of nutrients.
(Related Post: Why Good Nutrition Is Important In Sobriety)
Additional damage from chronic, heavy drinking:
- gastrointestinal disorders like diarrhea, constipation, and an inability to properly digest food
- tissue and organ damage
- inability to process key amino acids needed for emotional regulation
To repair your body, you need to eat nutrient-dense whole foods and proteins.
Before I got sober, I was a vegetarian for about eight years. After my daughter was born, I slowly reintroduced meat into my diet. The difference in my mood and appearance has been life-changing.
If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you certainly do not have to eat meat to repair your body, but you need to be extra mindful of your protein intake and get yourself a high-quality B-complex vitamin.
If you’re able, it’s not a bad idea to book with your general practitioner to do a full check-up to see which (if any) nutrients you are deficient in so you can make a plan to fix it.
Be wary of the sugar bug
It’s very easy in sobriety to substitute alcohol with sugar and bad food. I’m certainly guilty of it.
The problem is that going overboard has extremely detrimental effects on your mental health. If you’re eating fried and processed foods every day, your mood, energy, and motivation are going to tank.
You’ll be right back feeling like shit again.
Hey, I get it. Don’t get me wrong.
There have been times when ordering (and eating) an entire pizza with the works has been the difference for me between maintaining sobriety and relapse.
We all have those moments.
But as you get further along in your sobriety, you need to take your diet more seriously. Once you make an effort to change your food, you’ll notice that your energy level and mood are significantly improved. You just feel better!
I’ve eaten like an asshole for years, even before I started drinking my weight in hard cider.
Because I USED to have a highly active metabolism, it never really mattered. Now? Not so much. I’m jiggly and programmed with years of terrible food habits.
Imagine my joy when I first realized that there are foods in this world that make you more energized after you eat them! I’m mostly accustomed to wanting to sleep after I eat.
Our habits have snowball effects in either direction.
Diet is just one piece of the larger puzzle.
Maintaining sobriety means understanding the relationship between the various aspects of your life and how best to optimize each component.
Starting with a strong morning routine sets you up for a healthy breakfast which sets you up for being productive and getting work done, which makes you feel good and want to do more.
The opposite is also true.
Ever tried to get serious work done after eating a Whopper or hitting the snooze button ten times? It’s not ideal.
6. Prioritize your mental health.
Like a lot of folks with drinking problems, I struggle with anxiety and depression. Those problems do not go away when you stop drinking. If anything, they intensify because you’re no longer drowning them out with booze.
If you do not take care of your mental health, you will increase your risk of relapse. There are several ways I manage this in my life.
Everything I’ve already listed above is part of my mental health maintenance plan. Meditation, movement, and diet are critical to keeping me well.
Additionally, I do online counseling which helped me learn tools to manage my anxiety and see my depression differently. I personally use and love BetterHelp so much so that I’ve partnered with them. I am so proud to have them as a sponsor of Soberish.
If you’re interested in trying online counseling, click –>>HERE<<– to get 10% off your first month.
Those are the more obvious ways to support mental health. Here are some less apparent things I do.
I stay vigilant about what causes me stress and react accordingly.
You ever notice how sometimes when you hop on social media to check a message from someone, you get distracted by something else and before you know it, your heart rate is up and you’re feeling pissed off?
That was my whole relationship with Twitter at one point and it was NOT healthy.
Now, you can approach social media from the perspective of, “it’s just the internet. Don’t get so worked up.” In theory, that sounds right.
But we aren’t wired to brush off threats to our identity and values so easily even when we KNOW it’s coming from an online troll. Take a look around at the state of our world. It’s clear that we are more fractured and stressed-out than ever.
A two-year study tracked 5,208 Americans between 2013 and 2015. It found a direct correlation between Facebook usage and mental health. The more usage increased, the more future mental health decreased in participants.
I had to give my entire digital life a makeover.
Life is too short, which is why I’m constantly evaluating what impacts my mood and adjusting accordingly.
My personal motto for maintaining sobriety is “If you can’t control it, don’t bother with it.” It’s why I don’t buy BBQ Pringles and also why I deleted my personal Twitter account.
If there is a nonessential aspect of your life causing you stress, get rid of it. Life is stressful enough without intentionally exposing yourself to more of it.
I say “NO” easily and with confidence.
I have to. I’ve got a limited social bandwidth and a toddler at home. If I’m at capacity, I have no problem leaving a party early or politely declining an invitation to do something.
Of course, I make exceptions for special occasions. If I’ve made a commitment that requires me to really “show up” for a friend, I will do it even if I’m not feeling my best.
But those are rare.
I know myself and when I need to stay home. The beautiful thing is that it requires no explanation on my part. That’s the magic of a confident “no.”
Friend: “Hey do you want to grab some dinner later?”
Me: “Sorry! I can’t.”
End of discussion. And you know what? I’m a better friend for it because I’m not being wishy-washy by feeling pressured to go and then flaking on them at the last minute or being bad company.
I give myself space.
I’m an introvert which means I require a lot of “me” time to function properly. Having a little one only makes me value that precious alone time more.
I am very strategic about organizing my social and work calendars so that I’m not maxed out. As a result, I’ve gotten good at knowing what my boundaries are and employing them as needed.
The more self-aware you become in sobriety, the more you’ll know when it’s time to pull back and give yourself room to reset. Because let’s be honest, if your mental health starts to slip, it can become a one-way ticket back to drinking.
Nobody wants that.
7. Stay connected to your sobriety support groups and systems.
I have an entire online family of sober people I’ve never met in person, but who have made an enormous impact on my life. When I felt lost, they embraced me with open arms.
Whether you are part of an in-person sober community like AA or SMART Recovery or an online one, these relationships are important.
There are many people who abandon their sobriety network prematurely. They think they’re all better now so there’s no need to attend meetings or participate in their groups.
A lot of those people wind up drinking again.
I prefer to not be one of them.
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.
8. Be selective with friendships and romantic relationships.
The great revelation of my sobriety has been that I actually don’t have to be friends with everyone. Drinking “me” placed WAY too much emphasis on other people.
Do they like me? Am I invited to this gathering? Why didn’t I get added to the group chat?
Sober “me” doesn’t care about those things one bit.
On some level, I think I forced friendships on people in my past because I was lonely and needed social validation.
Let’s be honest. I also wanted people to go out drinking with me. I rarely formed genuine connections with anyone.
How could I? I was either drunk or hungover all the time.
Human beings are innately social creatures. The impact of social isolation on our mental and physical wellbeing can be tremendous, even causing early death in the elderly.
So as much as you may want to, you can’t just say “screw everybody” and go it alone forever. Believe me; I’ve tried.
You need people in your life.
The key to maintaining sobriety is picking the right ones.
Besides my husband and family, I have 2 or 3 friends that I am extremely close to and then a few additional folks who are more like solid acquaintances.
That’s it. And I couldn’t be happier.
There are plenty of people I like and have fun with, but wouldn’t consider a friend necessarily and that is perfectly okay. I have neither the time nor the desire to cultivate several deep relationships.
My circle is small and it stands on a solid foundation. Until I got sober, I don’t think I knew what it was like to enjoy someone’s company without drinking. That’s why my current friendships are so valuable.
They feel much more genuine.
9. Prioritize quality sleep.
One of the best things you can do for your sobriety is getting to bed at a decent hour and wake up at the same time every day (yes, even on the weekends). The connection between sleep and mental health is very clear.
Sleep deprivation can contribute to mental illness. The flip side is also true. According to Harvard Medical School, between 50% and 80% of people with a mental illness also have sleep problems. It’s very chicken and egg.
If your sleep is constantly disrupted, your entire body takes a hit. The effects of impaired sleep include:
- Impaired thinking and emotional regulation
- Health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, and more.
- A weakened immune system
- Risk of depression -people who do not get adequate sleep are four times more likely to develop depression.
- Resistance to mental health treatment – depressed people who suffer from insomnia are less likely to respond to treatment than those who do not
- Risk of anxiety disorders – In a study of teenagers with mental health issues, sleep problems preceded an anxiety disorder 29% of the time, and depression 69% of the time.
If you want a happy, healthy life, and maintain your sobriety long-term, you have to get a solid 7-8 hours of sleep every night.
I’ve added a white noise machine because without white noise, I would probably go insane trying to sleep and weighted blankets because they are extremely calming and worth the investment.
Resources for improved sleep:
- Sleep Smarter by Shawn Stevenson
- The Sleep Revolution by Arianna Huffington
- A high-quality white noise machine
- Weighted blankets
There’s no magic recipe for maintaining sobriety long term.
It really comes down to the basics. I don’t have a mantra or visualization that will get you there any faster. There’s no special breathing exercise that will make cravings disappear altogether.
It’s about consistent, daily practices done repeatedly, even when you don’t feel like it.
Honestly, you don’t even need to be struggling with alcohol addiction to benefit from these things. They’re all standard components of any good life. But when you’ve been drowning your existence in alcohol for a long time, they’re all things we have to relearn.
It’s part of starting over.
And that is ultimately what keeps your sobriety intact – creating a good, healthy life that you no longer feel compelled to escape.
You just have to want to do it.