Xanax. Ativan. A drink or two to ‘take the edge off’. As addicts and alcoholics, we strive to reduce uncomfortable emotions in any way possible. Feeling less than euphoric is literally our least favorite thing ever. That’s why we drink and do drugs to excess. Drinking and doing drugs numbs the tremendous pain that we have accumulated and neglected over the years; chemical substance anesthetizes us and make us feel okay – however temporarily. Five minutes of fleeting relief is far better than five minutes of facing blunt reality. We go to great lengths to avoid feeling things like sadness, shame, and anxiety. And then we get sober.
And then all of those pesky little human emotions come flooding back to us, and we are left sitting in a mile-high pile of our own torment and self-loathing and resentment and fear. Fear. The evil and corroding thread that are lives are shot through with. Fear and anxiety are closely interrelated. When faced with fear, most people will exhibit symptoms of anxiety. For alcoholics, this fear is often tangible – especially in early sobriety. We are afraid of nearly everything, because it is all so new and we have no idea how to handle any of it. So it only makes sense that when we first sober up, we are absolutely riddled with anxiety.
Fear and Anxiety – Both Plights of the Alcoholic – Are Closely Interlinked
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that nearly one-fifth of all individuals with social anxiety disorders simultaneously suffered from a substance abuse disorder, and studies consistently show that the vast majority of those seeking treatment for drug addiction or alcoholism are concurrently afflicted with a psychological disorder like depression or anxiety. In some cases, these diagnoses are legitimate and permanent, and must be treated pharmaceutically. In some cases, these diagnoses relate directly to the chemical depletion (noradrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin) that results from prolonged substance abuse, and may need to be pharmaceutically treated for a brief period of time – until neurological functioning normalizes.
In some cases, (and this seems to be the case the majority of the time), anxiety simply results from a lack of experience handling social situations (or any situations) without the anesthetizing aid of drink and drugs. Humans? You want me to interact with humans? No way. Forget it. Wait, work a job? Contribute to society? Taxes? The weight of reality settles in at once, and we are stuck between unresolved past issues and unrealistic expectations of future endeavors. Take away the regulating effects of booze and pills and dope and we instantaneously fall to pieces, unaware of how to even begin living in the present moment. But alas, we cannot live in hiding our entire lives. No matter how desperately we yearn to, we cannot lock ourselves inside, safe from societal standards, until we grow gray and pass. We have to man up and interact eventually. But how?
Reduce Anxiety in Sobriety
- Find replacement coping mechanisms.
Keep in mind that alcohol and drugs were your solution – they were not the problem. The problem lies in the fact that you are ill-equipped to deal with life. When you started to feel anxious, you could reach for a few pills or a bottle of wine and everything would settle down internally in a matter of moments. Now, you must face your discomfort head on. How? First of all, find some replacement coping mechanisms. This may take a little searching, so be patient. Try out yoga, or jogging, or listening to music. Find something that helps to calm you down, and utilize this new technique or behavior or practice whenever you start to feel anxious.
- Commit to weekly therapy.
If psychiatry is not necessity (you may want to be checked out by an experienced psychiatrist just to make sure you do not suffer from a diagnosable anxiety disorder), you will surely benefit immensely from setting up regular appointments with a professional therapist – one with ample experience in treating those who suffer from addiction. Not only will weekly therapy sessions allow you to emotionally stabilize in a safe and supportive environment, but your therapist will help you come up with new methods of combatting anxiety. And whether or not severe anxiety is something you struggle with, therapy is never a bad idea – especially in early recovery. We tend to have quite a lot of stuff to work through.
- Meditate on a daily basis.
Meditation is geared towards grounding your energy in the present moment and helping you further bolster a relationship with the universe (as well as your higher power). While you meditate, focus heavily on your breath. Engaging in daily breath work will assist you in learning to calm yourself down at any point in time. The main benefit of meditation is its ability to help you remain in the present moment. Most of the time, when we experience anxiety, it is because we are either dwelling on the past or anticipating the future. Recognizing that you are okay right where you are at that very point in time is hugely beneficial.
- Practice grounding techniques.
Meditation is one grounding technique, but there are many more that you can easily utilize anytime, anywhere. Call a friend and have a quick chat. Trace your hands along the physical outline of your body, feeling your solidity. Take slow, deep breaths, imagining that you are exhaling all of your worry and stress. Wiggle your fingers, and recognize that you are in control of each little movement that your body makes. Read something aloud, and listening to the sound of your own voice. Take a few minutes to write about what is going on. What is causing the anxiety? Are you able to pinpoint it, or is it just a generalized feeling? Utilize some (or all) of these techniques, and you will be feeling more centered and in-control in no time.
- Practice, practice, practice.
The only way to conquer fear is to walk straight through it. If it is social anxiety you suffer from, the best thing you can do to overcome uncomfortable feelings is to repeatedly experience them. Challenge yourself to share in meetings, introduce yourself to new people, and go out to dinner with a group of friends at least once a week. If you feel as if you cannot rely on yourself to actively participate, call your sponsor or a close friend and let him or her know that you will need support in stepping outside of your comfort zone. Practice makes progress!
- Drink tea.
Make yourself a piping hot mug of chamomile tea. The warmness of the tea will help to calm you down, and herbal tea – namely chamomile – is known for its tranquilizing qualities. Inhale the sweet steam through your nose slowly and deeply, and exhale through your mouth. In through the nose, out through the mouth. In through the nose, out through the mouth.
Feeling anxious sucks, but it is not the end of the world. Feelings are always temporary, and with a little therapeutic guidance and personal dedication, you will be able to conquer your nerves in no time at all. Remember that it is completely normal to feel anxious in early recovery, seeing as you have not yet replaced drinking and drugging with a full set of equally effective coping mechanisms. Go easy on yourself, and allow yourself ample time to heal. Work through unresolved past issues alongside a compassionate therapist, and come to recognize that the future simply does not exist. We have no idea what wonderful things are in store for us further down the road. All we have is the here and the now.
Right here, right now.