Keep Acute Stress from Becoming Chronic
Everyone gets stressed.
It’s part of the human experience.
And anyone who’s lived through the past two years in the U.S. knows all about stress.
2020 gave us the pandemic and the election season. 2021 gave us more pandemic, more politics, and a dose of complicated world affairs. Two months into 2022, and guess what? More pandemic and more politics. And now we’re on the verge of another election season, which means even more politics.
Unfortunately, we can’t put our heads in the sand like an ostrich and ignore everything around us until it goes away. Because even if it does go away, more stress will come.
That’s why we say it’s part of being human.
And that’s why each of us needs to learn practical stress management skills. If we didn’t, we’d all walk around all day stressed, worried, and probably irritable or outright angry. At our families, at our coworkers, at our friends, or at the world in general.
That’s no way to live.
Stress and Addiction Recovery
If you’re in recovery from an alcohol or substance use disorder (AUD/SUD), you know how important it is to manage stress. From the small stressors to the major life stressors, you have to learn how to deal with them all. Because for you, too much stress can lead to the one thing you most want to avoid: relapse.
You understand that when you don’t address your stress head on, it builds up. What starts small – if ignored – gets large. It can happen quickly. Like a snowball rolling downhill. Let it gain momentum and it gets hard to stop. The more momentum it gains, the harder it is to stop.
Therefore, you go to meetings. You follow your sobriety plan. You stick to your aftercare program. Your meetings give you a place to talk things out in a supportive environment designed for you to share anything and everything that threatens your sobriety or might lead to relapse. Your aftercare program includes daily activities that support your sobriety and, by design, reduce your overall daily stress levels. You spent time during treatment learning what works for you and what doesn’t, so you should have the tools you need to manage your days and nights.
Sometimes, though, all that gets tough.
Your program may seem like too much. It might feel overwhelming. You may find yourself in the tricky position of feeling like the thing designed to keep you from being stressed and preventing you from relapse is actually causing stress, which you know can lead to relapse. When that happens, it’s important to take a step back, get perspective, and recalibrate.
It’s time to get back to basics.
How to Recalibrate
The most basic thing to remember is that you need to stick to your recovery plan. But here’s an important point: if you’re not doing basic stress reduction as part of your daily routine, it can undermine your recovery plan and disrupt your sobriety.
That’s how this post will help you. We’re going to remind you of the essential basics of stress management, so you can review them, check them against your daily routine, and make sure you’re setting yourself up for both success in recovery and success in life.
We’ll start by giving you a quick refresher on exactly what stress is and how it functions in our lives.
Stress: What You Need to Know
It’s important to understand that stress itself is not a bad thing.
It’s actually a productive force in our lives.
But not all stress is good.
There are two different kinds of stress: acute and chronic.
In most cases, acute stress is positive, although it doesn’t always feel positive when it happens. Acute stress is what happens in your brain and body in response to immediately threatening external stimuli. When you have a near miss driving your car and your adrenaline spikes – that’s acute stress. It’s our natural fight-or-flight response kicking in. When the threatening stimulus disappears, so does the stress. It may take a few minutes, but it happens.
We feel the rush, then we calm down. That’s totally normal. And that’s the course acute stress is supposed to take when we experience it. There’s a spike, a denouement, then a reset back to normal. It’s as if the commanding officer in your brain shouts “High Alert! Battle Stations!” then five minutes later says, “Threat passed! At ease, soldiers, as you were.”
Chronic stress is stress that persists for a longer period of time. It lingers after the immediately threatening stimulus disappears. And, more importantly, it can also appear in response to stimuli that are not an immediate physical danger, but instead, cause psychological discomfort. Think of spending months or years in a job you don’t like, a marriage you’re not happy in, or in circumstances you don’t like: that’s what chronic stress feels like.
The problem is, your body doesn’t know the difference between acute and chronic stress, and that’s when problems can happen.
If we extend the military metaphor, chronic stress is like when the commanding officer in your brain shouts “High Alert! Battle Stations!” and then never tells you to stand down or to be at ease. Your brain and body stay on high alert. Sometimes for days. Sometimes for weeks. And for some people, this state of high alert may last for months or years.
If you’re in addiction recovery, you know chronic stress is one reason many people turn to alcohol or drugs in the first place, and why many people relapse: it’s painful and overwhelming. That’s why anything you do to keep acute stress from becoming chronic stress is important: it can keep you from feeling overwhelmed, keep you grounded, and keep you on your sober path.
The Consequences of Chronic Stress
If you’re in recovery, you should understand that stress management is not just for you.
Everyone needs to know how to keep acute stress from becoming chronic stress.
We need to learn productive ways to cope with stress because, according to the Mayo Clinic, long-term exposure to stress hormones – a.k.a. chronic stress – has a significant negative impact on your emotions, on your body, and on your behavior.
The behavioral consequences of chronic stress include:
- Withdrawal from friends, family, and social activities
- Overeating or undereating
- Misuse of alcohol and/or drugs
- Tobacco use
- Exercising less
The emotional consequences of chronic stress include:
- Decreased focus
The physical consequences of chronic stress include:
- Stomach problems
- Muscle/joint pain and stiffness
And as we mention, if you’re in recovery, you know about another negative consequence of stress. It increases the likelihood of relapse. That’s why it’s important for all people in recovery to know the signs of stress, and to have a robust array of stress management strategies and techniques at the ready.
How to Manage Stress: First, Identify It
Practical stress management can be tricky, but the most effective stress management techniques are simple and straightforward. The tricky part lies in recognizing when to apply them and applying them consistently. We’ll repeat the main point of this article: if you make stress management a habit, you’re ahead of the game.
Before we offer our five tips for creating the foundation for effective stress management in your life, we want to address what we mean by the trick lies in recognizing them. Here’s what we mean: it’s critical for you to understand that the behavioral, emotional, and physical consequences of chronic stress are also the symptoms of chronic stress.
And to tie this together for people in recovery, what we mean is that when you feel overwhelmed by recovery and by your program, it’s time for you to take inventory – a phrase you should recognize from your time in treatment and from participating in community support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA).
You take your stress inventory by asking yourself the following questions, which are derived from the list above.
Personal Stress Inventory: Twelve Questions to Ask Yourself
- Am I withdrawing from my friends, family, and my recovery community?
- Have I been eating too much or too little?
- Have I been thinking about drinking or using drugs?
- Has my tobacco use increased?
- Am I exercising less, or not at all?
- Have I been unusually sad lately, and don’t know why?
- Have I been unusually anxious lately, and don’t know why?
- Am I more angry or irritable than usual?
- Am I having problems concentrating at work, or following through on projects?
- Have I felt tired all the time over the past few weeks?
- Am I getting good sleep, and enough of it?
- Have I been having unexplained stomachaches, headaches, or muscle/joint pain lately?
We don’t have an official scoring system for these questions. However, if you answer yes to at least half of them, we think you need to be honest with yourself: you’re probably stressed – and your stress management techniques aren’t keeping up with your stress levels.
We don’t have to remind you – again – what happens when your stress overmatches your capacity to manage it.
Thankfully, we know how to help.
How to Manage Stress: Our Five Top Tips
When you realize you let your stress levels get unmanageable, or let them approach unmanageable, it’s time to do what we say in the beginning of this article. It’s time to recalibrate and make sure you set yourself up for stress management success. If you’re in addiction recovery, stress management success is almost synonymous with effective relapse prevention: that’s why managing stress should be a top priority.
Here are our top five tips for beating the stress in your life:
1. Hobbies and Sober-Friendly Activities
Spend time doing things you love, like practicing hobbies such as reading, playing/listening to music, or anything you enjoy that’s sober friendly and feels good.
2. Exercise and Activity
Get out of the house and move every day. Stay active and exercise in any way that works for you. Start with simple, fun activities like walking, running, or taking group exercise classes. Find something you love doing, and do it as often as your schedule allows.
3. Mindfulness Practices
Learning mindfulness techniques such as meditation, deep relaxation, mindful walking, tai chi, or yoga can make a big difference in your life. If you learned these techniques during treatment but dropped them when you returned home, we get it. Sometimes responsibilities force us to put mindfulness practices – and self-care – on the back burner. Now is the time to get back to that yoga, tai chi, or meditation practice that helped you find balance during treatment. It can bring you back into balance, now.
4. Social Contact
This one is simple: connect with friends and family as often as possible. If you’re isolated, or in a place without many family or friends around, we recommend recommitting to your recovery community. Go to more meetings, find a sponsor if you haven’t yet, and say yes to any sober-friendly get-togethers or events organized by people in your community support groups.
5. Good Food Every Day, Three Times a Day
Eat a healthy, balanced diet high in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and lean protein. This is truly the foundation of good health. That means mental health, emotional health, and physical health. To achieve recovery success you need all three, and food is a great place to start. You don’t have to go gourmet, you just have to get the basics right: three healthy meals a day.
If you’ve been so busy you find yourself justifying drive-through fast food more than you can care to admit, we sincerely urge you to keep driving until you get home to your fridge or to a grocery store with healthy options. We promise your body will thank you. And making a good, healthy choice will boost your self-esteem and increase your chances of avoiding temptation the next time all you want is that happy meal or triple-decker.
The trick, as we mentioned above, lies in making these stress busting techniques habits that you practice daily, rather than exceptions that you implement when stress overwhelms you. The core philosophy behind successful stress management is creating a strong foundation of positive routines for your mind and body. That way, when things in your life do get stressful, your mind and body can handle them without getting out of balance.