Boredom is a common hazard for people recovering from addiction. Many people suddenly discover they have a lot of free time on their hands when they aren’t using drugs and alcohol, and this may be compounded further by trying to distance yourself from friends who still drink and use drugs. Perhaps the biggest reason boredom is so common is that drugs and alcohol artificially stimulate the brain’s dopamine system, so things that might normally be interesting are just sort of dull. It may take months before the brain changes enough that anything besides drugs and alcohol become interesting again.
In the meantime, boredom can be dangerous because it presents an opportunity to slip up. Indeed, for many people with substance use disorders, drugs and alcohol are the standard solution to boredom. The following are some tips you can use to cope with boredom and keep it from derailing your recovery from addiction.
First, if you’ve gone through treatment or therapy for a substance use disorder, you probably learned a number of cognitive and behavioral skills for tolerating discomfort and regulating emotions. These might involve mindfulness or challenging underlying assumptions you have about the situation. Remember that these skills can apply to boredom just as well as other challenging emotions like anxiety or anger. Boredom is a sort of tension you feel when you want to do something, but nothing feels very satisfying. You have the option of exploring this feeling nonjudgmentally, which can make it less distressing, or identifying your faulty assumptions; perhaps thoughts like, “I must feel engaged and entertained at all times.”
We typically feel that boredom is a negative emotion, but, like all emotions, boredom is merely information, a sort of red flag from the less articulate parts of our brain. Your boredom may be trying to tell you something important. Why is it your usual ways of occupying yourself are suddenly inadequate? Is it perhaps time to reevaluate your priorities or reconsider whether your actions are in line with your values? Boredom might be a signal that it’s time to challenge yourself a bit. Boredom can force you to be creative.
Many of us reach for our phones at the slightest twinge of boredom. You have to stand in this line for two minutes? Better check Facebook. Sitting at a red light? Better scroll through Instagram. While it seems like this is an obvious solution to boredom, it really just papers over the problem. You can mechanically scroll through social media, and although you’re technically doing something, your engagement and satisfaction remain low. You’re not addressing the underlying causes of your boredom, and you may actually be aggravating it. Before you reach for your phone, consider some of the other strategies on this list.
When you’re bored, chores are probably the last thing you want to do. Chores are boring, which is why we put them off. However, chores have practical value. If your options are to sit there and be bored or wash the dishes and be bored, you can at least accomplish having clean dishes if you choose to wash the dishes. While this may not sound too enticing, picking something off your to-do list and just doing it can break the spell of boredom and lead you to something more engaging.
As noted above, sometimes boredom is a signal that it’s time for a new challenge or a signal that what you’ve been doing doesn’t align with your goals or values. Sometimes the way out is not to rely on the things you normally do but to try something new. It doesn’t have to be a major change. It could be something as trivial as taking a different route to work or taking the first step on a project you’ve been putting off. A new challenge or a break from your normal routine can give you a fresh perspective.
Occasional boredom is unavoidable. Sometimes you get stuck on hold with the insurance company or you have an unexpectedly long wait at the doctor’s office. However, if you find yourself bored regularly, it could be that you’re not managing your time very well. Managing your schedule is always a delicate balancing act: you want to avoid feeling rushed and stressed out, but you also want to avoid large blocks of idle time. This is especially true when you’re recovering from addiction, for the reasons described above. If you seem to find yourself feeling bored at the same time every day or every week, find something to schedule in that time slot—a 12-Step meeting, a therapist’s appointment, a cooking class, exercise; it doesn’t matter, as long as it takes up some of the slack in your schedule with some useful activity.
As discussed above, reaching for your phone when you’re bored is a trap, so it might be a good idea to have a more useful default activity ready. Keeping a book handy is always good because you can learn something during those odd moments of free time throughout the day. Other options might include a quick language lesson or vocabulary review, a few rounds of a memory game like Dual N-Back, or knitting. The idea is to train yourself to do something productive in response to boredom, even if you don’t really feel like it.
A typical experience of boredom is that you’ll have plenty of things you could be doing but none of them feel very satisfying. You might read for a few minutes, find it dull, play a video game for a few minutes, but not get into it, sit at the piano and plink out a few sour chords before giving up, and just keep wandering about aimlessly.
When you’re stuck in this sort of pattern, sometimes the best thing to do is just pick an activity and stick with it. It can take a few minutes to settle down and focus, and many activities are not fun or interesting until you get to that point. So the solution is often just to set a timer for 10 minutes or so and just keep working on it for that amount of time no matter what. Once you overcome that initial resistance, you’ll typically find the activity is no longer boring.
Boredom is one of many hazards in early recovery, but it’s not fundamentally different from other challenging emotions. Instead of dreading boredom, try to use it as a time to reflect on your priorities and whether your daily actions are in line with those. If you seem to be bored often, schedule more activities or find yourself a new challenge.
At Enlightened Solutions, we know that overcoming addiction means treating the whole person and helping our clients make meaningful life changes. We teach many skills, including distress tolerance, emotional regulation, and other strategies to help you overcome the challenges you’ll typically face during recovery. For more information, call us today at 833-801-5483 or explore our website.
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