Managing Anxiety in Addiction Recovery

Anxiety and substance abuse disorder are often co-occurring disorders and require dual diagnosis treatment. But entering an addiction recovery program doesn’t always relieve your anxiety. If you struggled with anxiety before you began using drugs, the problem will usually remain unless you seek treatment for the anxiety. Even if you didn’t struggle with anxiety before, the challenges that arise in recovery can produce anxiety.


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Why Is It Important to Manage Anxiety in Sobriety?

Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time. In fact, anxiety can be a healthy emotion that protects you from danger. Once a threat has subsided, your anxiety levels typically diminish. But if you regularly feel anxiety that’s disproportionate to the level of threat that you’re experiencing, the emotion can be debilitating. For many people, substance abuse is a coping mechanism for dealing with anxiety. Unmanaged anxiety in addiction recovery increases your risk of relapsing. It can also paralyze you, making it difficult to access resources such as healthy coping skills when you need them the most. The following tips can help you manage anxiety in sobriety so that you can avoid crises, react positively to triggers and make the most of your addiction recovery.

What to Do About Anxiety in Sobriety

The following techniques can help you manage anxiety in sobriety. These strategies are used in comprehensive addiction treatment programs to help you develop emotional intelligence and resilience, improving your mental health and sustaining your recovery.

Breathe to Reduce Anxiety

Taking fast, insufficient breaths activates your sympathetic nervous system, which triggers your fight-or-flight response. This increases your heart rate and can make you feel anxiety. The fear that follows can make your breathing even more shallow, and you can get stuck in an anxiety cycle. Breathing deeply into your belly, a technique known as diaphragmatic breathing, calms the sympathetic nervous system and allows your parasympathetic nervous system to dominate. The easiest way to do this is to take long, deep breaths. Feel the air fill your lungs, and continue to inhale until the air makes your belly expand. Then, exhale as slowly as you inhaled, making sure that you expel all of the air. This practice reduces your heart rate, slows your respiration, lowers your blood pressure and relaxes your muscles. It calms you physiologically even if your emotions and thoughts are running a mile a minute. Many other techniques for relieving anxiety, such as yoga, meditation and Tai Chi, involve deep breathing. Practicing these modalities can also reduce anxiety in sobriety.

Brain Dump for Anxiety-Filled Thoughts

Sometimes, thoughts swirl through your brain so rapidly that you experience anxiety. Perhaps you’re ruminating about something rude that someone said to you earlier in the day. Maybe you’re stressed about your long to-do list. Putting your thoughts on paper can release them from your brain and give you time to become present. You don’t have to write coherently or come up with a solution to your problems. Try using a stream-of-consciousness method, wherein you write whatever words are coming to you in the moment. This process declutters your mind. Even though you may not have resolved your issues, you will have organized them outside of yourself. This gives you clarity and reduces some anxiety.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Many mental health professionals use some form of cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, with their patients. This is a treatment method that helps you identify and restructure unhealthy thought patterns. There are several techniques to help you reframe your thought patterns. Your therapist will customize the process based on your needs. It helps to work with a professional when you’re using CBT techniques. But if you want to try some the next time that you experience anxiety, consider making a note of the thoughts that go through your mind. It doesn’t matter if they aren’t rational or have nothing to do with the situation. For example, if you have anxiety about going to your first addiction support group meeting, you might write:

  • No one will understand me and my addiction.
  • I’m too broken to share my story with others.
  • I’m not cool enough to talk in front of strangers.
  • I’m not going to know what to do.

Go through each statement, and reframe it with a positive spin. The thoughts above can be reframed as such:

  • Everyone in the room has some understanding of addiction.
  • I’m interested in hearing whether my peers have been through similar experiences.
  • I can listen without sharing.
  • I will ask my therapist what to expect before I go.

Help Someone Else

Have you ever had a friend call you to vent about a major problem in their life when you were feeling overwhelmed and anxious? If you had the capacity to help them out, you might have become so distracted that you forgot about your own worries for a moment. Helping others can relieve your anxiety. It builds social connections, reinforcing your feelings of worthiness and confidence. The next time you feel anxiety in sobriety, consider calling a friend who has been having a hard time, bringing a meal to a neighbor or volunteering for a local organization. Reading aloud at a support group meeting or bringing snacks for everyone is another way to serve others.

Nourish Yourself

Focusing on your physical health when you’re recovering from addiction goes a long way in managing anxiety. Eating nutrient-rich foods, staying hydrated, getting enough sleep and exercising regularly help your body access the chemicals that are necessary for dealing with stress and staying balanced. However, you may need to relearn these essential foundations of self-care. Healthy regimens often go out the window during active addiction. When you’re feeling particularly anxious, give extra attention to your healthy routines. Going through the motions can help you get through periods of anxiety without derailing your sobriety.

Inpatient Treatment

Residential treatment is an effective way to break through a crisis and find immediate safety. If you experience anxiety in active addiction, immersing yourself in a protective environment with 24-hour care and supervision can offer immense relief. Inpatient care removes you from your daily stressors and triggers. It also gives you access to guidance and support that can prevent you from spiraling deeper into addiction and anxiety. At Burning Tree Programs, we offer a wide range of treatments in addition to inpatient addiction programs. We put together a holistic plan, which includes talk therapy, CBT, relaxation techniques and other modalities to help you manage your anxiety as you journey into recovery.