The path to sobriety does not stop once your treatment program is complete. Once discharged from treatment, you’ll face the challenges of maintaining your hard-earned sobriety. Treatment facilities provide a safe and sober environment where you are surrounded by support and consistent encouragement, but this doesn’t accurately reflect the real-world environment to which you will return. It is estimated that 40% to 60% of people coming out of treatment will relapse at some point in their lives,1 and while relapse does not mean failure, it can feel that way to a person who is working on their sobriety.
Preparing yourself for triggers in your home and work environment is helpful in maintaining your recovery, but having a comprehensive plan of action with corresponding strategies is a move that will lead to greater success in achieving long-term sobriety. The various parts of a comprehensive plan for wellness include attending to your physical health, emotional health, relational health, and social health.
Substance abuse and addiction can severely compromise your overall physical health. When your body is lacking nutrients, sleep, or physical activity, it can mislead you into feeling like you need the substance you once abused to feel better or simply to feel normal. Therefore, when taking a somewhat holistic approach to your recovery, it will be important to pay attention to nurturing your body—which bears the brunt of substance addiction—by taking care of your diet, sleep, and exercise.
Diet includes everything you eat and drink on a daily basis and is not to be confused with a diet you may use to lose weight. In fact, the focus should be on overall health, which is apparent in the way you feel each day.
Everything we put into our bodies matters, since the food we eat and the liquids we drink change our body chemistry, either assisting our bodily functions or taking a toll on them. This becomes even more important when prior substance abuse is a part of the picture because addiction to drugs or alcohol and any associated malnutrition can rob your body of essential vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients, impair your ability to adequately synthesize hormones and enzymes, and tamper with the innate cleansing and restorative ability that you require to achieve healthy homeostasis and prevent disease.
Specific tips on managing your diet while in recovery include:
- Eating on a regular schedule, even if you are not hungry. This can help prevent you from overeating or undereating and assist you in establishing a habit of regularly eating wholesome and nutritious meals.
- Speaking with your doctor or a nutritionist to figure out which diet most suits your body chemistry and dietary needs. Different diets include vegan, vegetarian, Paleo, alkaline, ketogenic, and more.
- Getting labs drawn and supplementing any nutrients, hormones, or chemicals you are lacking. Substance abuse and addiction often affects:
- Nutrients such as zinc, iron, calcium, magnesium, and B vitamins.2
- Hormones produced by the endocrine system that regulate metabolism, sleep, responses to stress, immunities, reproductive capacity, and many other essential functions.3
- Chemicals in the brain, known as neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine.4
- Avoiding convenience foods that tend to be lower in nutrition and higher in fats and simple sugars, and sticking to a diet that is comprised mostly of whole and organic foods.
- Avoiding foods that your body reacts negatively to, since this may mean you are allergic or sensitive to them, which can lead to more physical problems such as chronic inflammation.
Developing and maintaining an exercise program that works best for your body and your goals can be an excellent way to boost your recovery. Exercise, as many people know, is often touted for benefits such as:
- Supporting cardiac and respiratory health.
- Promoting better sleep.
- Increasing energy levels.
- Improving overall mood.
- Maintaining a healthy weight.
For those who are recovering from an addiction to substances, exercise is even more important to help combat some of the negative health consequences which their addiction created or worsened. There are many types of physical fitness programs available today, which can seem overwhelming to those just beginning to focus on physical health. Knowing your body and your personality and staying in line with them can help you to find a fitness program that works best for you. Some examples of fitness programs include:
- Tai Chi or other martial arts.
- High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT).
- Weightlifting and CrossFit.
- Walking, jogging, or sprinting.
Starting an exercise program can be difficult if you never have been in the habit of caring for your physical health, if you struggle with motivation, or if you simply don’t know where to start. If it’s motivation you lack, it may be helpful to find a family member or a friend to join you in achieving your fitness goals. Having emotional support and the physical presence of someone else is an effective strategy to help you stay focused and motivated to achieve physical health.
If you don’t know where to start, online companies such as LivingSocial and Groupon provide discounts on yoga, boot camps, Pilates, personal training, martial arts classes, and more. This is a great and inexpensive way to experiment with several types of programs with little to no long-term commitment to a program that you may end up disliking. With time and diligent effort, you will start to see and feel the positive impact of taking care of your physical health, which will lead you to further care for yourself.
Not paying attention to your sleep hygiene can be detrimental to your health, so it is something to take seriously and incorporate into your holistic wellness plan. A few important things to consider when tending to your sleep habits include:
- Planning for a regular sleep and wake time, keeping in mind most people only require seven to eight hours of sleep for optimum energy and focus.
- Turning off electronic devices at least one hour prior to going to bed since the blue light of technology inhibits the production of melatonin you need for sound sleep.5
- Meditating or running through your day from start to finish in your mind can help you to clear the running thoughts that may prevent you from promptly going to sleep.
- Ensuring your room is a peaceful and dark space. Lighting incense or infusing oils, playing music, and making sure you have curtains that block out the light can all enhance your sleep experience.
The importance of paying attention to your physical health through diet, exercise, and sleep cannot be emphasized enough as a major contributor to maintaining sobriety. Figuring out what you need to nourish your body and sticking to a regular program can help you to not only feel better, but also help you to stay busy and avoid situations that may trigger a relapse.
Taking a proactive approach to your emotional health is vital to your recovery. If you are under constant stress and feel overwhelmed, or if you don’t feel good about yourself or your life, then going back to substance abuse can seem much more appealing than remaining sober. Therefore, consistently tending to your emotional wellness can help reduce the likelihood that you will turn to drugs or alcohol to feel better. Some ways you can do that include coming up with a schedule you can stick to, learning stress-management skills, and working with a therapist on issues such as self-worth, self-esteem, boundaries, and boosting your satisfaction level in various aspects of your life.
While a schedule may seem like something that would add stress, maintaining structure can help to prevent relapse by ensuring old patterns are replaced by new, more constructive patterns. When thinking about a schedule you can incorporate into your recovery, do not cram too much into your days since this can contribute to your stress. Instead, make sure you set aside time to take care of your physical health and plenty of time for sober activities that reward you emotionally. It is important in the first few months of recovery to focus your attention on nurturing yourself, not adding more to your to-do list.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), stress can increase your chances of having a relapse. Stress activates cortisol, which triggers a chain of physiological reactions that makes it difficult to use the reasoning part of the brain to cope constructively.6 Taking care of your emotional health proactively helps to dampen this stress reaction overall, and it’s also important to develop a safety plan for handling stressful situations that arise without warning to help you avoid a potential relapse.
A safety plan should include:
- Identifying common triggers.
- Recognizing the typical and perhaps maladaptive reactions to those triggers.
- Three things you can do when you are triggered (i.e. take a bath, go for a run).
- Two people you can call if your coping skills are not helping in the moment.
In addition to having a safety plan, learning techniques that are taught in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT), and Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), can all be helpful in managing acute stressors you may face.
Having a support group to go to two to three times a week is helpful for feeling like you are not alone and have others to turn to, but working with an individual therapist can help you to dig deeper into issues that may be driving your substance abuse. Some issues a therapist can help you work through are self-esteem and self-worth, setting boundaries in your life, and how to derive more satisfaction from life.
How you feel about yourself is an important factor in complete healing. Without love and appreciation for ourselves, it is hard to love others and the world around us. Many of us struggle with self-esteem and self-worth; often this is deep-seated and can stem from any number of early life experiences. A therapist can help you navigate this sensitive territory so you can heal. Boundaries are also something therapists can help you work on.
Boundaries are imaginary lines we put up between our own energy and others’ energy as a way to protect ourselves in a healthy way, instead of defensively. Part of learning boundaries is learning how to assert yourself, which is having respect and honor for your own wishes, while still keeping in mind the rights and feelings of others. Self-esteem is a good foundation to have when learning how to set boundaries.
The final thing you can work on with a therapist is identifying and rating your satisfaction level in various aspects of your life, such as your physical environment, career, friends, family, significant other, fun and recreation, health, finances, and personal growth. All of these things represent aspects of yourself as a whole being. Working to find balance and enjoyment in all of these areas can help you to feel more fulfilled and content with your life of sobriety.
Many people who are recovering from substance abuse have parents, a significant other, or kids who they will go home to after their treatment is complete. Often, these relationships are not as healthy as they could be because of the deleterious effects of substance abuse. Whether there was lying, stealing, cheating, or other forms of deceit that ruined trust, or abuse and neglect that created emotional harm to your family, healing is still possible.
In order for healing to take place, though, several changes must happen. These include, but are not limited to, the following items:
- The harm that was done must be acknowledged and made right with everyone
- Different styles of communication and interaction must replace more destructive patterns created during the course of addiction
- Everyone must understand and incorporate boundaries in order to prevent enabling, abusive, or other dysfunctional behaviors to continue
- Everyone must be able to identify how to get their needs met and what role each member plays in filling those needs, if any
- Everyone must be committed to lovingly and patiently holding each other accountable to collective goals and individual roles that meet the larger goals throughout the course of therapy
Working through relationship problems that may have been caused while you were addicted to substances can be a difficult and long process that requires openness and receptiveness, but in the long run it can lead to happier and more fulfilling intimate relationships that add value to your life. Seeking out a family therapist who can help guide you on this journey would be helpful because they can help you to express yourself and give you workable tools that can help each person improve themselves and the relationship.
One of the most difficult things about sobriety can be the loss of what you used to consider a social life. When people become addicted to substances, they tend to associate with other users of various substances. Unfortunately, these friends may not be in the same stage of recovery as you are, and further association with them may trigger you into a relapse of substance use. For this reason, when you are committed to a recovery program, it is important to evaluate the friendships and social settings you once believed contributed to your life.
While this may be difficult and cause you to experience grief and a sense of loss, it is an important piece to maintain the sobriety you have worked so hard to achieve. This part of recovery is twofold: you must let go of the people and places that may trigger future use and embrace people and places that are not associated with substance use.
An effective way you can let go of friends and social settings that may trigger a relapse is to write your friends or your favorite hangouts a letter. This letter can be one that you send off or one that you write and burn ceremoniously. Whichever option you choose, expressing your emotions about your experiences with them and your choice to let them go because of your commitment to your sobriety can be extremely cathartic and help you to move on with a sense of peace.
But letting go of your friends and social settings will not be enough, since this may lead to feelings of loneliness or boredom. It is important to meet new people and have new and sober experiences. Using the internet to explore your interests and to find those nearby who may wish to participate in similar activities (e.g., sites such as Meetup) can be a good way to meet new people with common interests. If you have social anxiety and typically avoid situations like this, ask a friend or a family member to join you in your venture.
Putting into place a comprehensive and specific plan for long-term sobriety takes off a great deal of the stress associated with maintaining recovery, and opens you up to a whole world of new possibilities as a healthy and whole person.
Our treatment advisors can provide information about substance abuse recovery programs and aftercare programs. Call today and take your first step toward a life of sobriety: .
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2012). Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (3rd edition).
- Haas, E. M. & Levin, B. (2006). Staying healthy with nutrition: The complete guide to diet and nutritional medicine. Berkeley: Celestial Arts.
- Emanuele, N. & Emanuele, M.A. (1997). The endocrine system: Alcohol alters critical hormonal balance. Alcohol Health and Research World, 21(1), 53–64.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction.
- Harvard Medical School. (2015). Blue light has a dark side.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (n.d.). Stress and Substance Abuse: A Special Report After the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks.