Addiction Relapse and Stress Management: Finding Peace in Recovery
Stress is a well-known relapse trigger, but it does not have to derail your recovery. Long-term treatment for substance use disorder helps patients learn how to recognize stress, triggers for stress, and strategies for coping with and reducing stress in healthy ways. Sticking with treatment and learning how to manage and prevent stress once back at home are essential for reducing the risk of relapse
Addiction relapse and stress go hand-in-hand. A trigger is any factor that can lead to a relapse of substance use and can include people, places, events, and emotions like stress.
Triggers do not have to lead to a relapse, but they definitely increase the risk. Recognizing and managing these triggers are important skills learned in substance abuse treatment. If stress makes you want to use again, you are far from alone; this is one of the most common triggers reported by people in recovery.
How Stress Can Trigger Relapse
Not only have many, many patients going through treatment and recovery reported that stress triggers relapse, addiction researchers are confirming it. For example, in a recent study that involved laboratory animals, researchers found that stressed animals were more likely to reach for cocaine than non-stressed animals.
The culprit, researchers say, is corticosterone, a stress hormone. Lab animals without the ability to produce this hormone, even when stressed, did not relapse on cocaine. The reason this hormone may help trigger relapse is that when it is released in the body in response to stress, it results in an increase in dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is the brain chemical that is also released when we use mind-altering drugs. That boost may be enough to encourage a person to relapse.
While there may be all kinds of hormonal and chemical changes occurring when you’re stressed and when you relapse or have an urge to use again, what you feel in that situation is simpler to explain: stress feels bad, and using drugs or alcohol can provide short-term, if ultimately destructive, relief.
Recognizing and Managing Stress – Learning Coping Strategies in Treatment
The best way to have a positive, long-term outcome in recovery is to get the best treatment. Effective treatment for substance use disorders must have several qualities, including duration of three months or longer. Residential treatment fits the bill and gives you plenty of time and focus to learn how to live without substances, and importantly, how to manage stress.
The importance of learning to control stress cannot be overstated. Stress not only triggers relapse, it can also prevent you from completing treatment. A study of patients in treatment for substance use measured stress hormones in participants. Those with higher levels were more likely to drop out early.
A good residential treatment facility will take your stress levels seriously and will immediately provide a safe, relaxing environment. In this comforting space, you will then be trained to recognize what causes your stress, early signs that you are getting stressed, and strategies for managing it without turning to substances. Here are some of the strategies you’ll learn:
- Meditation, mindfulness practices, and breathing exercises help you focus on the present moment, on your breathing, and on your senses, which can immediately reduce stress.
- Regular exercise, and even a quick burst of activity in the moment when stress threatens to overwhelm you, can be useful.
- Keeping a journal, recording what causes stress, how you react to it, and what you can do that is positive will help you retrain your stress responses.
- Building social connections is a powerful way to combat stress. Just being with a friend and talking about what is stressing you out will instantly bring relief.
- Find your own stress-busters. Some healthy strategies are individual. You may find relief from a cup of hot tea, while someone else may find that dancing to loud music is a more effective outlet. Find what works for you and use it.
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The Importance of Reducing Stress
Knowing how to manage stress when it happens is so important to reducing your risk of relapse in recovery, because no matter what we do, stress happens to us all. Do what you need to do in order to reduce stress in your life. Identify what it is that causes stress first. It could be a person or relationship, over-commitment to activities, household and family responsibilities, or work, which was the case with Derek who struggles with alcohol addiction:
Derek had already been through a treatment program for alcohol use disorder when he relapsed. He had learned some great coping strategies in treatment, but once he got back home, the stressful hours he put in at work started to wear him down. He used many of his relaxation techniques, including meditation, which helped for a while.
After one very difficult week at work, spending 12-hour days in the office and trying to meet his quotas, Derek went to his old bar. He had one drink and then another. After a refresh in recovery, he came to the important realization that the stress of his job was toxic and triggered his relapse. No matter how he tried to hold off, drinking again seemed like the only way to relieve the stress.
Derek’s therapist helped him realize that he needed a change, that managing stress was inadequate. He decided to find a new job. With connections through friends, he found a great position in a company that respected employee personal time and health. He dropped his working hours to a normal 40 per week and continued to practice meditation every day. He has now been sober for more than one year and has a lot less stress in his life.
Instant Stress Relief to Avoid Relapse
Making lifestyle changes after treatment, such as reducing overall stress and exercising more, is important to recovery. Also important, though, is being able to instantly reduce stress in the moment. For those times when you feel stressed and like your only option is to turn to drugs or alcohol, try some quick stress busters:
- Progressive muscle relaxation. To do this relaxation technique, tense or contract muscles and relax them to get instant stress relief. Start with your feet and legs and work your way up the body.
- Deep breathing. Stop what you’re doing and focus just on taking and releasing deep breaths. Inhale deeply through the nose and exhale slowly through the mouth. Visualize good energy going in and bad energy going out.
- Visualization exercises. Have a happy, safe, and relaxing place in mind to use for this exercise. Close your eyes and imagine a place, like a beach, and use all your senses to see, hear, smell, and feel it.
- Exercise. For some people, a better instant stress relief is activity. If sitting still to do breathing or muscle exercises doesn’t work for you, a burst of exercise is better. Go for a walk, get up and dance, or run around the block.
Addiction relapse and stress are unfortunately linked. If you struggle with addiction, stress will be a bigger enemy for you than for others. To avoid relapse, you must learn to manage it. The first and most important step is to engage in effective, long-term treatment. This is where you will learn the practicalities of identifying, managing, and preventing stress. If you can stick with it, treatment will help you face the stress to come in recovery.
Alta Mira offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders and process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Bay Area programs and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward lasting recovery.