Do you know how to manage stress in recovery?

 If you are a member of my generation, you may remember the old Airplane! Movie, a slapstick comedy filled with puns and obscure humor. One of the characters of the movie, air traffic controller Lloyd Bridges, had decided that he would give up everything that week. As the stress kept building up, he would say, “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit…

  • Smoking.”
  • Drinking.”
  • Amphetamines.”
  • Sniffing Glue.”

It was funny in the movie, but if you are new to sobriety and facing stressful situations, there is nothing funny about not being able to rely on old habits to relieve stress.

manage stress is recovery

I decided to get sober seven months after my son’s death. On top of that, my dad who had been diagnosed with cancer a few years earlier was getting weaker, and my mother’s health was also deteriorating. This wasn’t the typical, “I had a bad day at work” type of stress. For the first time in years, I had to face reality without the assistance of alcohol to relax me. And there was a lot of stress.

Early in sobriety, the tiniest thing can tip the scale, making you want to drink. Unfortunately, many will succumb to the urge, but you don’t have to. If you are new to recovery and wondering how you can manage stress in recovery without alcohol, these tips may help.

Manage Stress in Recovery with Sleep

We all know what it’s like to go through the day after tossing and turning the night before. In addition to sluggish body functioning that slows down every thing you do, you may also find that you have difficulty focusing, recalling important details, and processing ideas. This is not a good time to make decisions about whether or not you should go ahead and have a drink.

Getting enough sleep also offers many health benefits that will help you manage stress in recovery. For example, a lack of sleep induces stress by increasing cortisol, the stress hormone, and causes high blood pressure. On the other hand, an efficient amount of sleep produces serotonin, known as the happy chemical, which helps improve overall mood and prevent depression.

Manage stress in recovery with sleep

There’s one more benefit that sleep has that can help you manage stress in recovery. While you are asleep, your brain is still busy processing the day’s events so that when you wake up, you may have a new perspective (or solution) to the things that caused your stress.

manage stress in recovery with community

Join a Support Group

In the 1970s, Dr. Bruce Alexander conducted research famously known as the Rat Park experiment. In a previous study, rats were put in small, isolated cages and given the option to drink from two water bottles. One contained water and the other a mixture of opioid and sugar. The rats chose the opioid solution bottle repeatedly often eventually overdosing.

Rat Park Findings

Later, Alexander expanded on that experiment theorizing that the rat’s behavior was more about the environment than the drugs. He built “rat park” giving the rats a community where they could play, socialize, and mate. He also gave them the same two options of water or opioids as were given in the earlier research.

He found that while occasionally the rats chose the drug-filled bottle, they weren’t obsessive about it. More often, they chose the water. In fact, he also introduced drug-addicted rats to the environment and found that they chose to detox themselves over time.

These experiments led Alexander to believe that “the biggest problem with the powerful, ubiquitous psychoactive drugs is that they are so effective. In immediate and powerful ways, they change how we feel, think, relate, and behave. Or transport us away from loneliness and isolation.

His work gave addiction experts a better understanding of the role that community plays in addiction recovery. Having a support group to help manage stress in recovery fulfills a human’s instinct to belong to a group.

Community for Shame Reduction

It also provides an outlet that aids in shame reduction. When in a support group with people who are going through the same problems, the alcoholic or addict has the opportunity to hear other people’s experiences, and it gives them the space to tell their own stories free from judgment by people who don’t under the shame that comes with addiction or past trauma.

Not all stories are about shame, however. Some of them are about success in recovery giving other members of the support group hope and inspiration for their own futures. People who have had years of recovery become role models that show what can be achieved after addiction and how to achieve it. As the addict goes through their own transformation, they too begin to adopt the mentor role helping others new to recovery, giving added purpose to their own lives and increasing their own self-esteem.

Manage Stress in Recovery with Flow

A few years ago, I read the book Flow. In it, the author, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, says that people all around the world are happiest when they are in “flow”. According to, “Flow is a state of mind in which a person becomes fully immersed in an activity.” When in flow, people lose sense of time. They can become oblivious to outside distractions. More importantly, their minds become so involved in the activity they are doing that they don’t think of the things that cause them stress. 

manage stress in recovery with flow
The article quotes Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, writer of Flow and flow theory founder, saying when in this state, “The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Flow Helps with Alcohol Obsession

If this sounds to you like the perfect antidote for the alcohol obsession, you are not alone. After reading the book, I decided that instead of obsessing over a craving to drink, I would find flow. As it turns out, that was a great decision because it worked.

Flow also helps with emotion regulation, learning, and performance. It promotes happiness, motivation, and engagement. Most importantly, it occurs most often when people are so involved in their creativity, work, or physical activities that there is no room in their brain for rumination on alcohol, past resentments, or stress. Flow won’t cure alcoholism, but it will help you get out of your head and into the challenge of the task at hand.

According to Steven Kotler, writer and flow expert, “When we end up in the deep now, when time gets shut down in a flow state, anxiety disappears, your stress hormones flood out of your system. The nervous system actually resets at this point.”

If you want to know more about how you can get into flow to take your mind off of alcohol, download my Flow State Checklist,

Manage stress in recovery

Stress Doesn’t Have to Be a Reason to Drink

Unfortunately, stress is a perfect excuse to drink.

  • Kids are driving me nuts. Stress. Drink.
  • Work was tough. Stress. Drink.
  • First date. Stress. Drink.
  • Don’t know what to fix for dinner. Stress. Drink.

Yes, for the alcoholic, even something as simple as deciding between chicken and hot dogs can be a perfect reason to drink. In fact, when in active addiction, I turned every event into an excuses to drink.

Fortunately, however, we don’t have to drink over stress when we learn that there are other, much healthier, ways to deal with it.

I’ve listed three, but there are many more ways to manage stress in recovery. What do you do when life stresses you out?

If you need help managing stress or other aspects of living sober, please reach out. There are thousands of people in every corner of the world who are willing to help. You can also learn more about Now Sober and the ways we are here to support your recovery by checking out my “Work with Me” page.

Help Manage Stress in Recovery

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