Anxiety is a common problem for people recovering from addiction. One large study of more than 43,000 people found that 17.7 percent of people with substance use disorders also have an anxiety disorder. [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2921723/] It also appears that in the vast majority of cases, the anxiety disorder comes first and the substance use disorder begins as self-medication. [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2904966/] That’s why it’s crucial to find a treatment program that can address co-occurring issues, such as an anxiety disorder. Controlling the condition with therapy and sometimes medication makes recovery from addiction much easier. However, anxiety is an issue even for many people in recovery even if they aren’t diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Drugs and alcohol are often ways to cope with the stress and anxiety of daily life and therefore stress is a major trigger of cravings. Practicing healthy ways of coping with stress and anxiety is essential to a strong recovery. Here are some healthy ways to cope with feelings of anxiety.
Take some deep breaths.
When you feel anxious or overwhelmed, one of the fastest and most effective ways to calm yourself down is to take a few slow, deep breaths. Your physiology and your mental state are closely connected. When you’re anxious, your heart beats quickly and you become tense. It’s difficult to control your heartbeat but you can control your breathing relatively easily, even when you feel anxious. Slow, deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system, counteracting the sympathetic, or fight-or-flight, the system that becomes overactive when you’re anxious. [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5709795/] A rate of six breaths per minute seems to be the most effective for improving heart rate variability and promoting efficient oxygen exchange. Also, the exhale stimulates the vagus nerve more than the inhale, so you might try a pattern like inhaling for four seconds and exhaling for six seconds. After 10 or 12 slow, deep breaths, you should feel much calmer.
Grounding is another way to quickly relieve anxiety in the moment. When you feel anxious, you are likely caught up in anxious thoughts, probably about the future. “What if I fail this test?” or “What if I bomb this interview?” and all the potential catastrophes that might result. One antidote is to physically ground yourself in the present moment to take your focus away from anxious thoughts. There are many ways to do this. There’s the 5-4-3-2-1 method, for example. You notice five things you see around you, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. If this seems like a lot to remember when you’re feeling anxious, either practice it periodically so it’s more comfortable or find a simpler point of contact that works for you. For example, you might notice the sensations of your breath. Combined with deep breathing, this can be a powerful way to calm down quickly.
Exercise is an excellent way to calm down in the moment and to feel less anxious in general. If you’re struggling with anxiety, exercise releases endorphins and serotonin, both of which calm you down and improve your mood. Even a fifteen-minute walk can do wonders for your state of mind. If you don’t have time to go for a walk or climb some stairs, a regular habit of exercise can buffer you from feelings of anxiety. Research indicates that exercise can improve your mental health by making your brain less reactive to stress. [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1470658/] It appears to do this by affecting the brain’s hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal, or HPA, axis. These areas are connected to the limbic system, the amygdala, and the hippocampus and are related to a number of functions including mood, motivation, emotional processing, and even addiction.
Get plenty of sleep.
Adequate sleep is crucial for mental and physical health and it’s especially important if you’re prone to anxiety. Many studies have found that too little sleep, even for one or two nights, significantly increases feelings of anxiety. One study of more than 1000 teens found that sleep problems preceded anxiety disorders in 27 percent of cases. [https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/sleep-and-mental-health] Another study, this on in rats, found that sleep deprivation increased anxious behavior in the rats, apparently by causing oxidative stress in the brain. Interestingly, the effect was less severe if the rats had exercised the day before. Unfortunately, if you are prone to anxiety, it may also interfere with your sleep. Try to practice good sleep hygiene and consult your therapist if you have trouble sleeping.
Reduce your caffeine intake.
We love caffeine because it helps us wake up and feel alert but if you are prone to anxiety, it might be better to cut back. Caffeine makes you alert by stimulating your sympathetic nervous system, which increases your heart rate and prepares your body to face a threat. This is helpful when you’re staring at a spreadsheet at eight in the morning but it also increases your baseline of stress so that problems are magnified. Another issue with caffeine is that it can keep you from sleeping. Caffeine has a half-life of about four to six hours, which means that if you drink a lot of coffee in the morning or drink coffee after noon or both, there’s probably quite a bit of it still in your system at bedtime and that can keep you awake or impair the quality of your sleep.
At Fort Behavioral Health, we offer a safe, nurturing, and healing space for men and women to find recovery from the multifaceted disease of addiction. Our team believes in inspiring each client to face their challenges, discover the root of their problems, and reclaim their lives. If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, call us today at 817-381-9741 or contact us through our admissions page.