Anxiety disorders are the most common class of mental health issues. About 30 percent of Americans will have issues with anxiety at some point in their lives. What’s more, anxiety significantly increases your risk of developing a substance use disorder. The National Epidemiological Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions interviewed more than 43,000 people and found that among people who had struggled with anxiety in the past year, 15 percent met the criteria for having a substance use disorder—about twice the prevalence in the general population. Part of a strong recovery from addiction entails making healthy lifestyle changes to manage anxiety overall and learning to cope with individual episodes. Here are some suggestions for managing anxiety in addiction recovery.
First, if you have issues with anxiety and you haven’t seen a therapist, see one as soon as possible. An anxiety disorder is a serious mental health issue, sometimes with a biological basis, and you should take it seriously. It’s not just a matter of telling yourself to calm down; there are other issues driving your anxiety. A therapist can help you work through it, perhaps with the help of medication.
Deep breathing is one of the most effective tools there is for calming anxiety. When you’re anxious, your body’s sympathetic nervous system, the fight-or-flight system, is in control. You feel threatened—perhaps by something that’s not really threatening or perhaps by nothing at all—and your body prepares to deal with that threat. But since anxiety can feed on itself, the sympathetic nervous system never backs off. To do that, you have to intentionally activate your parasympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as your rest-and-digest system.
You can activate your parasympathetic nervous system by taking a few slow, deep breaths. The exhale is especially important, since this is what stimulates the vagus nerve and helps you calm down. When you feel stressed, panicked, or overwhelmed, take a few deep breaths. A common pattern is to inhale for a count of four, hold for a count of seven, exhale for a count of eight, and repeat. Five or 10 breaths should help you calm down and think more clearly.
Most anxiety comes not from any particular situation but from your thinking about the situation. Sometimes the brain can conjure up anxiety from nothing at all. When you’re anxious, it helps to notice what thoughts are causing the anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, has identified a number of common cognitive distortions that cause mental distress. These include black-and-white thinking, catastrophizing, discounting the positive, and others. You typically learn about these distortions and how to combat them as part of addiction treatment or individual therapy. Learning to spot these distortions takes a bit of practice and guidance but will significantly cut down on your anxiety once you get the hang of it.
Getting enough quality sleep is one of the best things you can do for your mental and physical health. Inadequate sleep has been linked to a number of mental health issues, including depression and anxiety. When you are sleep deprived, or when you run a chronic sleep deficit, you significantly impair several important cognitive functions, including attention, working memory, foresight, and prioritization. Perhaps the biggest problem for anxiety is that lack of sleep also impairs emotional regulation. There is an area of the prefrontal cortex that essentially acts as a brake on anxiety and when you don’t get enough sleep, that brake doesn’t work very well. Getting enough sleep makes everything in life easier.
After getting enough sleep, regular exercise is the second biggest lifestyle change you can make to manage anxiety. Many scientific studies now support exercise’s many mental health benefits, including reducing anxiety. Exercise does a number of things, including increasing the brain’s levels of endorphins, serotonin, and brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which helps grow neurons in certain areas of the brain. It is also thought that exercise affects the brain’s hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal, or HPA, axis, which reduces your reactivity to stress.
Mindfulness meditation is one of the best ways to learn to manage your anxiety. Most people reflexively try to push anxiety away, ignore it, or stifle it, but these only make it worse. Mindfulness teaches you to accept anxiety and not compound it by being anxious about it. Instead, you observe your anxiety without judgment, noticing where it comes from, what thoughts arise with it, where you feel it in your body and so on. You gradually learn that anxiety is nothing to be afraid of.
For most people recovering from addiction, moderate caffeine intake is not a big deal. If that caffeine is in the form of tea or coffee rather than sugary energy drinks, it may even have some moderate benefits. However, if you are prone to anxiety, caffeine may raise your baseline of stress. Caffeine’s effects are similar to those of anxiety—faster heart rate, increased energy and focus, and so on. It can make you more sensitive to stress or even trigger an anxiety feedback loop. Perhaps more importantly, caffeine can interfere with sleep. Even a cup of coffee at noon may leave quite a bit of caffeine in your system at bedtime. It can either keep you up or prevent you from sleeping deeply. This is especially problematic since many people already experience insomnia early in recovery. And as noted above, a chronic sleep deficit can significantly increase your anxiety.
Anxiety isn’t just a matter of being on edge or tightly wound. You can’t “just relax.” It’s a real mental health issue that typically requires professional help. You normally get treatment for co-occurring conditions, such as anxiety, when you enter an addiction treatment program, but not if you only attend mutual-aid meetings like AA. However, an untreated anxiety disorder can make recovery far more difficult, since it’s often the anxiety that caused the substance use issue in the first place.
At Enlightened Solutions, we know that recovering from addiction requires healing the whole person. Our holistic treatment program incorporates modern treatment methods, wellness practices, and modalities such as yoga and meditation to help our clients overcome addiction. To learn more, call us today at 833-801-LIVE.
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