By Trish Frye, Program Director
Seems these days I hear a lot about stress. Given that recovery is always a stressful time, it is important to pay special attention to stress levels and be mindful of the way we are managing them. Dr. Kevin McCauley states that “the primary cause of addiction is chronic and severe stress that changes the mid-brain. This sort of stress becomes a threat and the brain searches for relief by seeking out pleasure.” Dr. Robert Dupont points out that “the most profound effect of dependence producing drugs is pleasure. Any substance that produces pleasure can produce dependency.” Stress is our body’s way of responding to demands. It can be caused by both good and bad situations and not all stress is bad. When we feel stress, our bodies produce a combination of cortisol and adrenalin. These stress hormones help to give us more energy and strength, which helps if we are in danger or need to feel better. However, if we are in emotional stress and have no way of releasing it, this energy can become bothersome and cause other issues i.e., lowered immunity system, high blood pressure, cancer, poor memory, headaches, anxiety, behavioral issues and substance abuse to name a few. Essentially if not dealt with, stress will cause stress…and left unattended can trigger relapse or a transgression into old behaviors and survival skills. A recent study conducted by Rajita Sinha, director of the Yale Stress Center in New Haven, CT. found that the odds of relapse increase two-and-a-half times in people who had elevated levels of stress hormones.
So how do we cope with stress in recovery? STOP! This is an acronym I created as a reminder of some very important life and stress management tools:
S—STEPS : In the 12 Step program the first Step asks me to identify my limits… essentially to recognize what I can and cannot change. Often just recognizing the situation for what it is and knowing we are powerless helps to bring relief; accepting powerlessness is not shirking responsibility. Accepting powerlessness allows us to respond to our circumstances rather than react, and in response, we are able to take action while letting go of the results. The Steps can be applied to any situation as a way to cope. They are not exclusive to addiction. In PDAP the program titles their modified 12 Steps as “The 12 Steps to Life Love and Happiness”. The first Step of admitting powerlessness opens the door to accessing solution.
T—TODAY: This concept is about doing the next right thing, right now and not worrying about the future. Doing the best we can today with what we have rather than becoming overwhelmed with what HAS to get done or “WHAT IF.” Staying in the now helps us to not pile on anxiety in an already stressful circumstance. “Just for right now I can do the next right thing.”
O—OPPOSITE: Generally when stressed out, if we can stop and scan ourselves we will find that we are running on an “internal autobahn.” Our thinking is rushed and overwhelmed, our bodies are tense and we are holding our breath to a degree (shallow breathing). I do the opposite. I STOP and take a breath. Allow my mind to pause. Roll my shoulders and neck. Loosen my grip and then breathe. Take three deep cleansing breaths; am mindful and purposeful in these breaths. I slowly breathe in through my nose and blow out my mouth. If my brain does not think it is getting enough oxygen, stress hormone is released. It is amazing what happens when blood oxygen levels go up! Heart rates slow down and our minds begin to clear. I repeat my stress-releasing exercises again, if necessary. After all, if anything is going to get better “breathing is required.”
P—PRACTICE and PATIENCE: In any circumstance change is almost always uncomfortable. Habitually we will want to fall back and rely on the same old coping skills (which probably don’t work anymore). Creating new habits of working the steps, living in the now and being in our bodies rather than in our problems will take time. In the program we say “progress not perfection,” so I don’t get stressed out if this new way of stress free living doesn’t come quickly. In active addiction, we live a life that is about “feel good now” but in recovery we exchange short-term pain for long-term happiness. Stress and anxiety are inevitable parts of life; it is possible, however, to avoid relapse and enhance life utilizing the tools of recovery. Anyone can quit using drugs (or sex or gambling or control etc.) for a period of time. It is learning to live that way – life on life’s terms, that matters. In recovery we can do just that, while experiencing a reasonable level of happiness, joy and freedom…without consequences.