Stress Can Be a Relapse Trigger
Substance use disorders are chronic illnesses, which means your long-term treatment plan must include a strategy to manage relapse triggers. Everyone’s experience is different, but stress is a very common trigger for relapse.
Although some sources of stress can be easily avoided, it’s impossible to create a stress-free environment. Therefore, you must direct your attention to finding ways to cope with stress that won’t jeopardize your hard-won sobriety.
Understanding How Stress Affects Recovery
Sources of stress for people in recovery often include:
- Uncertainty about what the future holds
- Conflict in relationships with a spouse or significant other
- Conflict in relationships with a child
- Job loss or a reduction in work hours
- Financial stress
- Being unable to visit family and friends as often as they would like
Stress in recovery can manifest in a number of ways. You may experience:
- Stomach upset
- Trouble concentrating
- Heart palpitations
- Shallow breathing
- Shivers or tremors
- Stronger or more frequent cravings for drugs or alcohol
Prolonged stress represents a significant risk factor for relapse, especially if you also suffer from a co-occurring mental health disorder such as depression or anxiety. To maintain your sobriety, it’s important to be able to recognize how your body responds to stress and be proactive with stress management.
Healthy Ways to Cope with Stress
In the past, you likely turned to drugs or alcohol for comfort when stress seemed overwhelming. Now, it’s important to rely on the wellness-focused coping mechanisms you learned in residential treatment.
Some healthy ways to cope with stress include:
- Talk to someone you trust. If you’re in AA or another 12-Step group, your sponsor can be a wonderful source of support. If not, confide in a friend or family member about what is bothering you. Spiritual leaders can also provide guidance if you are currently attending a place of worship.
- Write in your journal. The act of getting your thoughts down on paper can help you see situations in a more objective way. Journaling can also help you brainstorm solutions to the specific problems that are causing your stress. If you don’t feel comfortable writing long entries with full sentences, even list-making or jotting down a few quick notes can be helpful.
- Step away from the junk food. It’s human nature to crave sweets or salty snacks when you’re feeling stressed, but a poor diet will only make it harder to keep your emotions under control. The occasional treat is fine, but strive to eat balanced meals with lean protein, whole grains, and plenty of fruit and vegetables. Avoiding blood sugar spikes will help stabilize your mood.
- Get moving. Exercise is the best natural stress reliever around. If you can’t get outside, YouTube can be a good source for free workout classes. Fitness-focused video games, such as the titles in the popular Just Dance franchise, are also an option to consider.
- Keep a consistent sleep schedule. Insomnia and fatigue can make this difficult, but try to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. Limit daytime napping and caffeine in the afternoon and evening hours to make it easier to fall asleep at night.
- Streamline your to-do list. You are only human, and it’s perfectly okay to not be productive 100% of the time. If you’re struggling, give yourself permission to pare down your to-do list to a more manageable level. Ask other family members to help with household chores, or plan to address projects that are not time-sensitive when your mental health improves.
- Be creative. Creative hobbies can provide a welcome distraction in times of stress. If you don’t already have a favorite creative pursuit, there are many online tutorials for drawing, painting, folding origami, knitting, crocheting, and sewing that you can try. To avoid becoming unnecessarily frustrated, focus on the creative process instead of the end result.
- Meditate. Meditation is a helpful tool for stress management because it trains your brain to focus only on what is happening in the present moment. This can help if you are feeling overwhelmed by situations that are beyond your control.
- Look for ways to help others. Volunteering or performing random acts of kindness can keep you focused on the positive when you are feeling stressed. Reach out to nonprofits in your community or look for people in your own neighborhood who need help. For example, seniors without family nearby may appreciate a card with words of encouragement or an offer to run errands.
When to Seek Professional Help
If cravings for drugs and alcohol are becoming increasingly hard to manage, reach out to your treatment team. You may need access to additional resources to help you stay on track with your recovery.
At St. Joseph Institute for Addiction, we offer a full range of relapse prevention and continuing care services for graduates of our Pennsylvania residential drug and alcohol treatment program. No matter what you need, we’re here to help.