During these uncertain times, I want to reassure everyone that we are often more resilient than we give ourselves credit for. I know this because as a clinician I work with individuals and families going through one of the most challenging times of their lives, as they address their substance use disorder and work on their recovery.
At Caron, we teach patients tools to manage the stress associated with the disease of addiction. I believe these tools can be helpful to everyone right now during the pandemic, which can be highly stressful for all. Here are some tips to help keep stress levels manageable:
1) Take it one day at a time, or even one hour at a time
When faced with uncertainty, I recommended breaking the time up into digestible pieces – focus on getting through today, this afternoon, or even the next hour. Spending too much time thinking about where this pandemic is going can lead to what I call “catastrophizing,” contemplating all the worst things that can happen. That just creates unnecessary anxiety.
In my work with people in recovery, we talk about focusing on putting one foot in front of the other. By breaking down our day into smaller segments, we increase our opportunity to be present with what we are doing right now rather than being overwhelmed by the unknown. Here’s an example of what this might look like: For these 10 minutes, I’m folding my clothes. For the next hour, I’m playing a board game with my kids etc. You set aside short periods of time to concentrate 100% on a specific activity.
2) Keep calm, and set boundaries that allow you to recharge
Most of us have heard of the body’s “fight or flight” response. When you're feeling threatened (real or perceived), your body prepares to respond by releasing adrenaline and cortisol into your bloodstream. This is a good thing, because it keeps you focused and gives you the energy to respond to the danger.
But your body is only meant to be in this heightened state as needed, not all of the time. If you are in “fight or flight” most of the time, it starts to affect your emotional and physical health, including your immune system. It even affects your ability to fully digest your food. You're either preparing to address a threat, or you're repairing, restoring and relaxing. Your body can’t do both at once. Ultimately, we need to work towards having some balance.
It’s not healthy to be in a constant state of heightened stress. I’m not suggesting you ignore what’s going on in the world, but it’s not helpful to sit by the television or your social media feed and obsess about the news. Instead, get the important updates and then set a boundary by turning it off and engage in some self-care. Again, balance.
3) Find support with your tribe
Talking to other people can help ground you in difficult times. If something bothers you, deeply, talking about it with someone you love and trust can help put the problem in perspective. Getting it “out of your head” and sharing it can offer perspective.
Reach out to your “tribe,” those people you feel emotionally safe sharing your anxiety and fears with, because you know they will support you no matter what. There's a mutual agreement that you're going to be honest with each other, no need to fix anything, no need to do anything other than listen and be there for one another.
4) Practice gratitude
Practicing gratitude is an evidence-based recovery tool that works to counterbalance anxiety and depression. Although social distancing and staying home can feel scary at times, we can find things to feel grateful for: A chance to spend more time with family, to recharge from your busy life, to take a break from your commute. Taking it a step further, you can reflect on the blessings you do have. Your primal needs for food, shelter and water are being met. Just being grateful for the most basic things in life can help lessen the anxiety and the catastrophizing we might otherwise fall into.
In treatment, we talk about the importance of practicing gratitude. We’ve even had patients say they’ve come to see their difficult life experiences as a “blessing in disguise” because it led to their spiritual growth and empowered them to change for the better.
5) Learn to be more comfortable with being uncomfortable
As I wrote in a prior blog post, mindfulness is a great tool for people in recovery, particularly in relapse prevention, because it gives you a real-time tool to soothe yourself instead of coping with alcohol or drugs.
As we know, substances are only one way to numb ourselves. We can avoid uncomfortable feelings or experiences with a pint of ice cream, grueling workouts at the gym or excessive screen time. There are so many ways we avoid being present with what’s going on, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Being comfortable with being uncomfortable is such an important skill that everyone needs right now, because we either learn how to manage the discomfort of our moment-to-moment experience, or we continue to avoid it, which means we lose the opportunity to learn and grow from it. A big part of recovery is learning to be more comfortable with being uncomfortable. Sometimes that means feeling the feelings that are happening right now, both pleasant and unpleasant.
The bottom-line is that it’s simply unrealistic to feel happy all the time. The goal of mindfulness is that you can learn to live authentically, with whatever you experience.
6) Create a healthy routine
For many people in active addiction, their days and nights are consumed with drug or alcohol seeking thoughts and actions. As they begin to recover, it’s important for them to learn about and develop a balanced routine, incorporating time for nutritious meals, quality sleep, activity, meditation and social connection.
The lack of a routine can create anxiety for those in this current situation, who may never have lived without one. Sure, you may suddenly be able to stay up until three in the morning, but ultimately that may not be beneficial. Instead, creating a structure will boost your emotional and physical well-being.
7) Enjoy life at a slower pace
Suddenly, many of us are in a situation where we're being forced to slow down and prioritize. This is often an important transition for many people coming into treatment at Caron. The successful lawyer who was routinely traveling to meet clients every week or the parent managing the hectic schedules of three children must pause to make time for self-care.
Imagine what an opportunity this is for everyone if we embrace the shift. Read that book you’ve always wanted to; take a class online; practice yoga in your pajamas, play catch with your kids. Take this time to look around, breathe and reflect.