The pandemic and addiction recovery – 5 tips to stay strong in isolation

addiction recovery in pandemic

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” – Khalil Gibran

You know if this tension keeps building, it won’t end well.

But everything seems irritating, wrong, and screwed up.

You were okay when you could get to meetings. In the meetings, you’re accepted. You belong, you’re with people who understand. But with the pandemic, that’s all changed.

It feels like the carpet’s been pulled from under your feet. You’re slipping and sliding trying to find solid footing, feeling shaky and scared.

And that flippin’ voice in your head is relentless in its criticism and goading. Whispering that you can’t cut it, you’re too hopeless, helpless, inadequate, weak, and a loser. It’s always tempting you to indulge and claims that this time, it’s going to be different.

But you know it’s a lie. You’re going to use and use and use some more until you’re totally wasted and the pain is numbed.

Unfortunately, once you give in, it’s incredibly hard to resume addiction recovery.

But you don’t have to head down that path again. You have a choice.

You can find inner strength and resiliency in the face of adversity, coming out clean and sane on the other side.

It’s not easy, but it’s a hell of a lot easier than being a drunk or a junkie or a pill head.

I personally know the challenges of clean living. In the beginning, it’s tough, full of confusion and frustration. But it does pass – if you let it. And there’s plenty you can do to help your own cause.

If you’re struggling to maintain a clean life in these challenging times, and many of us are, check out these 5 tips to stay strong.

Use what works for you, discard the rest, and don’t take that first drink or fix.

Make addiction recovery your burning why

“Are your goals backed by burning desire or are you giving the Universe mixed signals?” ― Azim Jamal & Brian Tracy

When our reasons are compelling enough, we’ll find a way to weather any temptation.

But it’s crucial that your goal of sobriety has the highest priority. If it doesn’t, life will distract you from it.

This is true for any goal we set. And for addicts, it especially important concept because it gets us past the stages of craving and compulsion.

It’s a sad truth that an alcoholic, or anyone heavily addicted, won’t give up their addiction until they find something more important to replace it with.

That’s because when practicing, our addiction is the most important thing in our lives. It consumes us. From the first thought upon waking to the last one at night – and even in our dreams – we’re hooked.

And when you’re thinking about consuming all the time, your goal is using, not addiction recovery.

This is when your brain sends out signals of lack and want. It floods your body with familiar emotions and the chemical signatures of intense cravings.

We literally think ourselves into consuming.

For addiction recovery, it’s vital that we avoid the stinkin’ thinkin’ that gets us in trouble. Like the anxiety, automatic negative thoughts (ANTs), rumination, self-criticism, and worry that can quickly jam our progress.

To counter this negative spiral, get back to the basics.

Use your journal to recall why you wanted to get clean or sober in the first place.

What is more important to you than drinking or drugging?

When you can answer that question, you’ve got something to hold onto – a solid foundation for your addiction recovery. Use it as a keystone to build on and protect yourself from your own destructive thoughts. Then make it the most important aspect of your day.

  • Write down what you want and why you want to achieve it. Get detailed and specific. Become absorbed with it, immersing yourself in the future of your choice.
  • Put up sticky notes to remind you of your goal and its value to you.
  • During the day, take a couple of minutes to imagine your ideal future – hourly if possible.
  • Spend 10 minutes meditating on it morning and night.

When temptation strikes, the value and meaning you’ve given your goal is what saves you.

If your reasons are important enough, they provide the power to push past the allure of instant gratification. And you build strength and conviction every time you say no to the past.

Schedule your wins

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” – Benjamin Franklin

A key to addiction recovery, particularly in the early stages, is learning to work through daily stressors – without self-medicating.

To cope with daily stressors, design your habits and environment to deal with them promptly. One of the most effective methods for this is a structured daily routine.

When we don’t have a plan we have an excess time on our hands. That’s when our thoughts can easily turn to anxiety and rumination, which makes it difficult to regulate emotions and cravings.

A daily routine helps to reduce boredom and stress. It reduces relapses, and improves accountability, time management, productivity, and purpose.

And a daily schedule reduces decision fatigue, which occurs when we’ve depleted our limited store of willpower.

When our willpower is depleted (from making too many decisions), we make bad choices. Like taking that first drink. But a routine gives structure to the day. It eliminates decisions, making it easier to stay on track.

For the greatest efficacy, be specific about activities, times, and locations. Such as “At 11:00 a.m., I meditate for 30 minutes in my bedroom.”

Commit it to paper. Use a large desk or wall calendar to track your schedule. Or print and post a copy where you’ll see it often, such as on the fridge, bathroom mirror, or workstation.

To create habits and an environment that reinforce clean living, develop a plan for everyday activities like the following.

  • Maintain a regular timetable for sleep and waking up
  • Arrange times to work your program and attend meetings
  • Set regular times for journaling, meditation, and prayer or contemplation
  • Keep regular times for school or work
  • Slot 30 to 60 minutes for daily exercise
  • Schedule meals and shopping
  • Maintain a clean environment and book time for daily chores
  • Reserve time for online socializing
  • Schedule time for hobbies, learning new skills, or reading
  • Slate times for basic self-care and personal hygiene

Don’t cram your day so full of activity that it feels hectic or beyond your ability to maintain. But keep it full enough so that you always know what’s next, letting it draw you forward naturally.

Track your progress and adjust where necessary.

Be consistent and stick to your plan. You’re building core values of confidence and self-trust that are a mainstay of recovery.

And remember, the goal is progress, not perfection. Aim to get just a little bit better every day.

Prevent emotional hijacks

“You don’t have to believe everything you think.” – Anon.

One of the greatest challenges to our happiness and well-being is emotional upset. This is true in addiction recovery and life in general.

Research shows that our emotions can and do have negative effects on cognitive abilities like logic and task performance.

So when we’re angry, anxious, or stressed, we literally don’t think straight. We think ourselves into getting upset, then our distressing emotions hijack our logic and reason. And that’s when we’re most likely to go blind to common sense and self-medicate.

One of the keys to a healthy recovery is learning how to reduce and regulate emotional disruptions.

Cultivating this skill is the path to life mastery. It builds confidence, improves self-esteem and self-acceptance, and increases motivation. All necessary components to an enjoyable, fruitful life.

Unfortunately, many of us get stuck at various stages of our development. This isn’t due to any failing on our part. It’s simply because many of us weren’t taught how to be emotionally competent, mature, or responsible.

Now, in no way is this meant to minimize or dismiss your emotions. But, to gain control over your actions, you have to know what drives them. Only then can you change the disruptive patterns that generate emotional hijacks.

1. Pull out your journal and list all your current cares, concerns, and problems.

For each item, note the beliefs, emotions, and meanings you’ve assigned to them. Also note the common trigger points of your anxiety or worry.

A short paragraph or a few bullet points on each issue will do.

2. Expose your limiting beliefs.

For each item, determine the validity of what you believe. Is it accurate or true? Or are you caught up in old programming?

Watch for common distortions. Such as all-or-nothing thinking, assumptions, blame, drama, emotional excuses, exaggerations, magnification and minimization, mental filtering, overgeneralization, rationalizations, and thoughts that start with “I need” or “I should”.

3. Break the craziness loop

Emotional hijacks operate in a crazy loop. We have a distressing thought that generates negative emotions and cravings. And together they drive bad choices and weak action. Which creates more distressing thoughts, emotions, and so on.

So it’s vital to become aware of the early warning signs – the habitual thoughts and feelings of our addictive self. Catching them early gives us a better chance of diverting a hijack.

Use techniques such as breathwork, meditation, or mindfulness to stay present to your stream of thoughts. When you catch them going sideways, shift your focus to break the loop. Neutralize or reframe old perceptions into something positive you can use to support recovery.

This exercise is incredibly empowering. Savour the sense of freedom and power that rises every time you break the cycle and deny the temptation to see yourself as defenseless and weak.

Be creative with meeting alternatives

“When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands.” – Daniel Goleman

Meetings provide us with a key component for recovery in the form of social connection.

Without the support of others in addiction recovery, it’s easy to slip into negative mindsets and damaging habits. But with the current physical distancing and self-isolation, you may need to be creative about how you connect with others.

There are several international organizations that offer direct support in the form of online meetings.

Such as AA, Al-Anon, NA, Refuge Recovery, and SMART Recovery.

And there are plenty of online sources for indirect support as well, like recovery blogs, forums, and podcasts.

If you can’t connect in person, you can meet digitally with friends, family, or sponsors. Try a Zoom coffee or dinner together or a game of online cribbage or Scrabble and make it part of your routine.

When you’re feeling shaky, pick up the phone call and someone to talk you through it. Nothing new about this!

Look to make a deeper connection with those you do come in contact with, like the grocery clerk, delivery person, bank teller. Not in a clingy, creepy way. But use it to cultivate gratitude and empathy.

When you meet someone, be aware that we all share the same worries and concerns. We’re all suffering from the effects of the pandemic. And we all want to be acknowledged and included, to feel valued and loved.

Be caring in your attention to the other person. Give them a smile, a silent blessing, a kind word. When we can’t connect physically, it’s an easy and effective way to gladden ourselves and others. Because it reminds us of our non-material wealth – and how good it feels to share it.

Love the one you’re with

“Be patient with yourself. Self-growth is tender; it’s holy ground. There’s no greater investment.” – Stephen Covey

Regardless of how far into clean, sober living you are, self-care is crucial to your progress and welfare. And while it sounds simple, many people struggle to make their own well-being a priority.

Often, we confuse self-care with being selfish, and see it as an indulgence or pampering. But learning to care for and love yourself is the basis for a productive life free of drug abuse.

In active addiction, factors such as a poor diet, lack of exercise, inadequate sleep, and stress contribute to a cycle of negative emotions and thoughts. Ones that lead to, and perpetuate, destructive behaviors.

In addiction recovery, it’s essential to stay in front of these emotional triggers.

Self-care is the only method to develop important personal aspects like concentration, confidence, energy, health, motivation, and an open mindset. All of which help to develop the skills to better cope with emotional disruptions and cravings.

Start with the basics and cover the HALT (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired) triggers.

  • Burn clean fuel. A healthy, light diet makes you feel good. It helps to stabilize blood sugars, which reduces brain fog and cravings. It also improves concentration, energy, and vitality. This leads to better choices, improving your chances of avoiding relapse.
  • Move it or lose it. Regular exercise is the ticket for greater overall health. It releases a chemical concoction that improves concentration, energy, resolve, and your mood in general. It’s also highly effective at busting stress and is key to curbing relapse.
  • Get enough sleep. Getting the sleep you need is also important. It’s hard to make healthy decisions, stay positive, and feel strong when you’re tired. Maintain an adequate sleep routine to avoid negativity and its consequences.
  • Lighten your load. Recovery’s serious work, but you can’t be serious all the time – it’s equally important to lighten up and have some fun. This can be a challenge without your drug of choice. But it’s a necessary step to include time for pursuits that help to reduce anxiety and improve relaxation.
  • Bust stress before it starts. Stress is a primary trigger for relapse, so it’s paramount to keep stress levels down. Adequate sleep, regular exercise, social connection, and practices such as breathwork, journaling, meditation, and mindfulness all contribute to keeping stress at manageable levels.
  • Set healthy, positive boundaries. To protect your sobriety, it’s important to decide in advance to eliminate or avoid familiar environments, people, and settings that trigger cravings and using. Set healthy boundaries in your online world as well.

Adapt, adjust, and move forward

“You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” – Toni Morrison

The current constraints and restrictions in place for pandemic control don’t have to restrict your addiction recovery.

It’s true that we have to be more flexible in how we approach and manage our daily affairs. But that doesn’t mean we have to compromise our goals of sobriety or clean living.

As in any new situation, we adapt, adjust, and move forward.

But you have to remember why sobriety is essential to you. And it’s equally important to be proactive with a daily schedule. One that builds confidence, tames emotional disruption, and supports your efforts for sobriety.

Start today by organizing your time to keep occupied and productive. And try out a couple of alternatives for online meetings.

We’re on the downside of the pandemic now, and things will be returning to ‘normal’ in short order. In the meantime, keep your eye on the goal and take small steps each day toward freedom and the life of your choice.

Because more than ever the world needs the light of clear-minded sobriety.

We need to see demonstrations of strength and perseverance in the face of adversity… why shouldn’t it come form you?

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