One of the hardest parts about getting sober is learning how to cope with all the stress life throws at you without using drugs. In drug rehab, people learn to deal with this stress by developing new coping mechanisms. Different tools resonate with different people, but here are 10 of the go-to coping skills for addiction used by a group of Promises alums who told us how they hold onto their hard-won recovery:
1. Distraction & Avoidance
For many people, the first line of defense is avoiding triggers and finding healthy distractions when triggers arise. “I’ve learned to avoid obvious triggers like walking down the liquor aisle at the grocery store,” says Nicole, and she calls her sponsor, takes a walk or finds something fun to do to distract herself when a craving strikes.
Mindfulness and meditation eased several Promises alums’ tendency to “future trip” and “catastrophize.” The opposite of using drugs to numb out or escape, mindfulness is a research-backed tool that helps people focus on the present moment, paying attention to thoughts and feelings as they come and go without judging, stifling or acting on them. People with addictions learn to “urge surf,” or ride the wave of craving until it passes, and sit with and accept uncomfortable feelings. Max deals with triggers by embracing the 12-step tenet “just for today.” He tells himself, “If I just make it to bed I’ll be fine. Sometimes it’s just for the next 30 minutes or even the next 30 seconds,” he says. He also reminds himself that negative feelings are temporary and can change in an instant, which helps him avoid acting on them. “What I’m feeling today might be completely different from what I’m feeling tomorrow,” he says. Basim agrees that a mindful, one-day-at-a-time approach keeps people grounded in recovery. “If I say I’m never going to use or drink again for the rest of my life, that would be like ‘Oh, I don’t know if I can do that,’” he says. “But if I can just say, ‘OK, today I’m not going to use,’ well, I can do that. And that’s where I’ve had my success.”
3. Sober Support Network
Promises alums say 12-step meetings are a central part of their sober support network. Several also go to Promises alumni meetings every week and share their story with current clients. “The alumni support is hugely important,” says Nicole. “I don’t miss any meetings. They make you feel important – like you belong – and they’re fun. There are cool events and we support residents and give them hope.” “Every day there’s something going on,” Abby adds. “And I think that’s the most important thing — the community, especially in early recovery. I’m constantly surrounded by strong people in recovery and the staff, keeping everyone connected.” Sara also highlights the importance of having a sponsor. At least five times a week, she talks to her sponsor who politely “calls me out on my B.S. and makes me see things in a way I otherwise wouldn’t.”
4. Contrary Action
This term gets bounced around a lot in 12-step circles as a way of combatting cravings and triggers. It essentially means doing something different than what you feel like doing. Because their minds and bodies have been hijacked by drugs and their lives have revolved around substance abuse, what people in early addiction recovery feel like doing is often unhealthy. Contrary action calls them to evaluate their decision-making and choose recovery. The most important application of contrary action is going to a meeting, calling your sponsor or taking some other recovery-promoting action when the urge arises to drink or use. It has many other applications as well, such as going to the gym even though you don’t feel like it or leaning on your support network even when isolating feels more comfortable. “What I want to do is go sit at home alone,” says Sara, “but what I do instead is go to a meeting because even though I don’t feel like going, I know it always makes me feel better.” With every contrary action taken, you can begin to retrain your mind and establish healthier habits.
5. Playing the Tape Through to the End
This relapse prevention tool is designed to combat impulsivity and “euphoric recall,” those moments when you vividly remember the highs of drug abuse but conveniently forget the lows. If you catch yourself doing this, “playing the tape through” calls you to watch the rest of the movie in your mind – not just that first high but also the DUIs, the devastated friends and family, the financial despair, the self-hatred and other heartbreaking consequences that followed. For example, the smell of marijuana triggered Anthony to want to get high. “I’d have a romantic thought of using and then remind myself I’m an addict and play the tape through,” he says. “I’d remember what it was like before and where my life would end up. I’d remember how broken I was, how scared for my sanity and my life – and that’s somewhere I don’t want to be.”
6. Giving Back
Being of service is a core tenet of the 12 Steps and many drug rehab programs. That’s because giving back combats core features of addiction, including isolation and self-obsession, and supports recovery through gratitude, hope and purpose. It also builds self-confidence, facilitates new friendships and job opportunities, and relieves stress. Giving back is empowering. Even if you left your mark in a negative way during active addiction, you can now make a positive difference in other people’s lives. “The best thing I can do for myself is to help someone else,” says Nicole. “It’s a chain reaction of compassion that can help everyone – that’s the essence of recovery.” Several Promises alums say giving back has been central to their recovery, whether through the alumni program, sharing their story with current clients or volunteering to help mothers in recovery at Miriam’s House. “I can’t tell you how priceless the Promises Alumni Association is to me and going up to visit Promises Malibu,” says James. “I probably speak there on a panel once a month and every Wednesday, I’m at the alumni meeting. I volunteer a ton of time. My life has purpose again.” Whereas Sara used to be all about herself, her focus now is “What can I do for others – no strings attached,” she says.
There are several important aspects of self-care, including a healthy diet and better sleep habits, but across the board Promises alums describe exercise as a critical part of their recovery. “I started going to the gym at Promises and am trying to keep that up,” says Nicole. “I’m looking better, which is helping me feel better about myself.” Yoga has been a healing tool for Sara, who discovered the practice at Promises and still takes classes four or five days a week after finishing drug rehab.
Research shows spirituality promotes mental and physical health by boosting feelings of optimism, hope, purpose, self-esteem and control and reducing stress. Although the Promises alums we spoke to did not consider themselves “religious,” they discovered that “staying spiritually fit” supported their recovery. “Don’t be afraid of a spiritual solution,” says Anthony. “That’s a big hang-up for people, but God is just a placeholder term for an entity we can’t define. It’s about embracing a spiritual way of life.” Since completing drug rehab, Sara prays every day and makes lists of things she’s grateful for, even if some days that’s “just the bag of Doritos on my desk.”
9. Sober Fun
Many people with addiction wonder, “Will life ever be fun again without drugs or alcohol?” Promises alums were relieved to discover that the answer is yes. “Over the holidays I had a hot cocoa party,” Nicole recalls. “I wondered if it would be lame since there was no alcohol, but it was really fun. When you’re with friends who care about you, you don’t need alcohol to have a good time.” In addition to finding healthy social outlets, Promises alums reported picking up new hobbies like skiing and yoga, or returning to old passions such as sports and cooking.
Learning to treat ourselves with kindness can be uncomfortable for people recovering from addiction, but it can help reduce shame, stress, isolation, depression and anxiety and is a useful relapse prevention tool. “I’m gentler with myself these days,” says Anthony. “I allow myself the space to have a bad day without assuming I’m a bad person.”