There are opportunities for fear at every stage of addiction and recovery. You might say that addiction is primarily characterized by fear—fear that something will prevent you from drinking or using drugs. However, you may also fear admitting you have a problem, asking for help, entering treatment, leaving treatment, and so on. While many of these fears are common, they can also stand in the way of progress. The following are some ways you can cope with fear and keep it from preventing you from doing what you have to do.
Fear and anxiety are closely related, but they aren’t the same. They even feel similar physically. The difference is that anxiety tends to be more general and open-ended—perhaps with the exception of phobias—whereas fear tends to be more specific. So, for example, if you have social anxiety disorder, you may constantly worry that you’ll be confronted with some kind of social situation and when you inevitably do find yourself in such a situation, you may worry that you’ll behave foolishly or that people will judge you harshly. It’s a fear that’s just always on.
Many of the fears you will encounter in recovery have a different sort of character, although it’s possible that you will have to deal with anxiety issues, as well. Fears are more concrete. They’re about specific things you know you’ll have to do at some point. For example, you might feel afraid to go to your first 12-Step meeting or, if you’re working the steps, you might be afraid to contact a particular person about making amends. Of course, you can put these things off indefinitely, but that will slow or halt your progress in recovery, possibly contribute to your anxiety, and make you less able to cope with fears in the future. On the other hand, the more you are willing to confront your fears, the faster you will progress and the less fearful you’ll be overall.
Many of us reflexively try to deny, suppress, or avoid fear. We don’t like it, so we try to put it out of our minds. What’s more, we don’t like to think of ourselves as afraid. So we might rationalize and tell ourselves things like, “I’m not afraid to do it; I just don’t see the point.”
The first step in coping with fear is to be honest about what you’re feeling. Instead of trying to evade or rationalize, just admit—at least to yourself—that the reason you don’t want to do something is that you’re afraid. Then you can begin to deal with it. Research shows that people who are more accepting of their emotions tend to have better mental health and suffer fewer consequences from negative emotions. [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3045747/] There’s no shame in admitting you’re afraid. Everyone is afraid sometimes. Admitting it will make it easier to do something about it.
As part of acknowledging and accepting fear, try observing your fear nonjudgmentally. Where do you feel it in your body? How intense is it? What thoughts are associated with it? What is it about the thing you fear that really bothers you? If you are able to sit with the fear and watch how it changes with your thoughts, you can learn something about it and you gradually become less reactive to fear. Having a regular mindfulness meditation practice can help make this easier.
Most of the situations you face in recovery aren’t actually dangerous. Maybe the one exception is detoxing from certain drugs. In other words, nothing you face in recovery is likely to harm or kill you. It’s not like seeing a tiger in the wild or standing too near the edge of a cliff, where your body is sending you a clear and accurate danger signal. Instead, your fear is probably rooted in your thinking about whatever situation you are facing. Therefore, you can use many of the same strategies cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, might prescribe for dealing with other challenging emotions.
For example, maybe you’re afraid to reach out to someone you need to make amends to. Usually, the worst that could happen is that they tell you to get lost or call you some nasty names. That’s not so bad in the scheme of things, but you may have some distorted beliefs that make that outcome seem unbearable. Maybe, deep down, you believe something like, “I must be loved and respected by everyone,” and the thought that someone you care about might tell you to get lost when you’re trying so hard to be good is just unbearable. In reality, it’s not unbearable; that’s just how it is sometimes. If you can train yourself to identify and challenge your faulty assumptions, you can make most situations seem less threatening.
Another way to get past fear and do what you need to do is to focus on your values, or why you want to do this in the first place. As Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” For example, many people decide to get sober because they see what their addiction is doing to their family. Staying in touch with that value can also help you overcome the other hurdles along the way. It’s the big reward that makes our effort and risk worthwhile. This is the basis of a form of therapy called acceptance and commitment therapy, or ACT. The idea is we don’t try to abolish fear, but rather we learn to act in spite of fear when something is really important.
Finally, seek social support because everything is easier when you have backup. Are you afraid to go to your first 12-Step meeting? Find a friend to go with you. Are you afraid of going to your first family Christmas after treatment? Bring a friend. Just having a support network, like a 12-Step group, where you can discuss your fears makes you more able to move forward. You feel more assured that you’re doing the right thing, more emotional support, and more resources to fall back on if necessary.
Fear is perfectly normal and unavoidable in recovery and in life. The important thing is not to let fear keep you from living the kind of life you want to live. Start by acknowledging and accepting fear and observing it without judgment. Examine its underlying causes and ask yourself whether there is really anything inherently dangerous in the situation you’re facing. Use your values and social support to help you move forward in the face of fear.
At Enlightened Solutions, we know that learning to tolerate and manage challenging emotions like fear is one of the most important elements of a successful recovery from addiction. That’s why we incorporate methods like dialectical behavioral therapy and mindfulness meditation into our holistic treatment program. For more information, call us today at 833-801-5483 or explore our website.
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