I once heard that the best part about sobriety is that you get to feel your feelings again. However, the worst part of sobriety is that you get to feel your feelings again. If you’re on this journey, you know this all too well.
I remember being 20 days sober and just feeling consumed with anxiety. My mind was racing. I felt painfully alone trapped in a sea of swirling thoughts, regrets from the past and fears of the future. There was so much that I had been trying to avoid – painful truths that I didn’t want acknowledge, feelings that seemed too heavy and scary to feel – and now they were here. There was no drink or drug I could use to escape the pain.
I drank for same reason you drank. I liked the effect. I didn’t want to feel the feelings that come with life: anxiety, sadness, grief, and loss. Alcohol allowed me to control my emotional experience. If I had a bad day at work or was feeling lonely, a glass of wine (or should I say a bottle of wine) allowed me to dull the pain. I felt everything so deeply. I liked being numb, rounding out my sharp edges. Life didn’t seem so scary after a few drinks. It was a momentary escape that I felt I deserved. You would drink too if you had my anxiety.
As the saying goes it works until it doesn’t. Self-medicating my anxiety did work for a long time. However, slowly but surely I started to unravel. I could no longer control my drinking – or my anxiety. Sometimes I was fine. I could go out and have only one or two drinks. But more often than not, one would turn into two and two into three and I’d wake up feeling so ashamed, full of anxiety, and terrified of who I was becoming.
In twelve step rooms, they talk about hitting rock bottom. I didn’t hit an obvious rock bottom. But I didn’t need to. I couldn’t keep lying to myself about what was really going on. There was this inner knowing that if I kept drinking the way I was, it would only get worse. I was ashamed of who I was becoming. My anxiety was only getting worse. I felt like I had this big secret I needed to hide. When I finally admitted what was going on and asked for help, while I was scared of what was to come, I also felt a sense of relief. The battle that I had been fighting for so long was finally over.
Early sobriety was hard for me for many reasons. The hardest part being I would have to learn how to feel all my feelings – the ones I had been trying to avoid for the last 30 years.
If you are in early sobriety and you are feeling all the feelings, please know it gets easier – so much easier. You won’t always feel like this. Eventually, you will feel like you again – only a better version of you – I promise.
Here are 6 tips to managing your anxiety in early sobriety. I am focusing specifically on anxiety because that seems to be the most common feeling reported by clients and the hardest to manage.
Stay in today. They say take it one day at a time for a reason. Focus simply on the 24 hours in front of you. What do you need to do today to make sure when you lay you head on the pillow at night you are sober? Your only goal for the first 3 months of sobriety is to simply not drink. You don’t have to overhaul your life – solve all your problems, get a new job, find a boyfriend, lose weight. Your only goal is to simply not drink.
Exercise. This one seems pretty obvious. But exercise can help so much in early recovery – especially with decreasing anxiety! When we drink heavily for long periods of time, we become depleted in neurotransmitters – i.e. dopamine – resulting in depression. This is often why when we stop drinking we often feel worse for a while before we feel better. Alcohol is a depressant. Exercise naturally increases dopamine and other feel-good hormones, restoring your neurotransmitters, leaving you feeling less anxious.
Connection. If there is one that trumps the rest, this is it. Addiction is a disease of disconnection. Our anxiety gets worse when we feel isolated and alone. If you isolate in early recovery for too long, it is not a question of if you will drink, but when. It is best to connect with others who are also in recovery who will understand just how hard this journey is. You can be a source of support and connection for one another! While online groups are helpful, it is important to have friends in real life that you can connect with (and have fun with!).There are so many mutual support groups – twelve step groups, SMART recovery, Refuge Recovery, Sharing Circles. If you are hesitant to try a mutual support group, considering hiring a recovery coach. Recovery coaches are individuals who have overcome addiction who have a specialized certification in working with clients in recovery. They know just how hard this journey is.
Learn from others’ experience. Anxiety gets worse when we feel like we are the only ones on this path and we have to figure it out ourselves. The good news is you aren’t and you don’t. It can be so helpful to learn from others’ experience. How were others able to get and stay sober? What did they do? There are so many insightful podcasts, books, and blogs written by others in recovery sharing their experience, strength, and hope. Some favorites include The Bubble Hour and the SHE RECOVERS Podcast. If you know someone who is sober, ask to hear their story. None of us can do this on our own – and the best part is we don’t have to.
Get support from a professional who works with individuals in recovery. If there is ever a time to hire a therapist or recovery coach, this is it. Imagine walking across a tightrope and knowing if you fall, there will be a net to catch you. This is what early recovery is like when you have a good therapist or recovery coach. A therapist or coach can help you process challenging feelings, allow you to feel seen and heard, and support you in your journey. They also know the signs of relapse that you may not be able to recognize in yourself - they can help you stay on track. Also, recovery is so much more than just not drinking. It is uncovering why you drank, peeling back the layers, and identifying what you need to truly heal. It is such a gift to truly recover.