One Breath at a Time: Reducing Your Stress Response During Recovery

We’ve all been there. There is too much going on in our lives: we just started a new job, moved into a new apartment, and experienced a death in the family all in the same month, and the stress over it all is piling up like dirty laundry. No matter what you’ve been through with addiction or what you are currently going through on your road to recovery, it seems that stress knows where you hide, and finds you often. While it is certainly a part of being human, the negative effects that stress has on our bodies are scary–and almost unbelievable. Cortisol, the hormone responsible for stress, can literally transform the cells in your brain into ones that prevent communication with your prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for not only learning and memory, but anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders.

Addiction and stress go hand in hand

Think of addiction and stress as troublemaking friends–when they aren’t together, they can cause their own mayhem–but when they get together, they feed off of each other, pushing each other to greater heights with their pranks. And they function similarly, too. While it may be almost impossible to believe, you can actually become addicted to stress just like you would a substance. Adrenaline and cortisol are pumped through the body in times of danger: when we are under pressure or strain, our body recognizes it as a threat. Those hormone fluctuations, if happening regularly, can make our body used to that fight or flight response, making us reliant on the accompanying rush.

Perhaps the most important thing to realize about the connection that binds addiction and stress is that it is cyclical. One informs the other, one affects the other, one feeds the other. While you may not know whether the stress or the addiction came first, it doesn’t much matter: you are trapped in a cycle of stress and reactions to that stress. You might be used to coping with your daily stressors with alcohol or drugs, and now that you are removing those substances from your life, you no longer have that crutch to use when stress arises. Unfortunately, the world does not become a less stressful place after a battle with addiction–but learning how to deal with those same triggers will make you more equipped to battle the waves of stress when they come. This is why treating them together is the best way to cope with both on a daily basis–and committing to doing so at a place like Alta Mira will give you the tools you need in order to continue successfully on your own. Two treatment methods we use that can help cope with stress are yoga and meditative therapies. As an addict, taking care of your body in a holistic manner is crucial to reducing your stress response, and it all begins with your lungs.

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Start by taking a deep breath

Breathe in deeply. Breathe out again. Repeat this a few times, and really focus on the ins and outs of your breath. Feel the swell in your chest; exhale slowly and fully.

Don’t you feel a little better than you did two minutes ago?

It has long been known that the positive effects of deep and purposeful breathing are not only healthy for your mentality, but healthy for your body. When you are stressed, your nerves go into overdrive–causing that “fight or flight” response, because your body senses that it is being attacked. Deep breathing at moments like these can lower a quickening heart rate, the pH of your blood (which helps regulate cortisol as well), and tells your nervous system to relax.

Think of your body as a vehicle. When it is stressed out, it ramps up into overdrive and is erratically swerving all over the road. Several deep breaths can put the brakes on before you “crash,” and will settle your nerves down after being stimulated to such a high degree. In the 1970’s, cardiologist Herbert Benson explored this concept and understood that the human response to stress can be drastically altered with a “relaxation” technique–the prime candidate of which happens to be meditative breathing.

Breathing matters–even science says so

As you begin your journey towards recovery, you are inevitably riding an emotional roller coaster, going through varying types of withdrawal symptoms, and may be dealing with interrupted sleep patterns or insomnia–something that over 50% of addicts must deal with through treatment and into recovery. Even just ten minutes of deep, purposeful breathing a day can enhance the effectiveness of your treatment and recovery with a whole host of benefits. Not only does it allow you to regulate those intense emotions, but it can calm anxiety and panic in times of stress or when your addiction whispers your name, and can help your body learn to slow itself down in order for you to fall asleep easier and deeper.

Yes, learning how to breathe deeply can be difficult–not only does it feel unnatural, but it might even feel a little silly. If you commit to implementing this practice during your treatment at Alta Mira, though, you will see a drastic improvement in not only the way you handle life’s stresses, but the way that you view your entire journey. Experiential and holistic therapies are important to your treatment and recovery, and by engaging in yoga or guided meditation alongside an experienced professional, you can better understand your stress response and how to manage it. Remember: there is always fresh air to be had, and breathing it in intentionally will open you up to all of life’s possibilities as you restore your mind, body, and spirit.

Treatment and recovery are both hard, but you have the strength you need to improve your health and your life. With the help of learned and professional staff at Alta Mira, you can learn how breathing fits into your individualized treatment plan, and make the most of your road to sobriety. For any questions, or if you or a loved one is suffering, please contact us today.