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Updated on November 28, 2022

Anxiety in Recovery

Can Sobriety Cause Anxiety?

Using drugs or alcohol is a common method of coping. For many, it may seem more comfortable than visiting a doctor to discuss personal issues or agreeing to a treatment regimen. 

Some people feel that alcohol or drugs are a do-it-yourself approach to dealing with social anxiety, family problems, or other stressful life issues. However, when you become sober, you must learn how to cope with uncomfortable and unpleasant emotions in healthy ways.

It’s common for people in early recovery to experience high anxiety levels as they go through various changes and life adjustments. People may feel pressure from balancing work, recovery, family, and sobriety.

Anxious feelings are a normal part of life. How you cope with them is what matters.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Many people with a substance use disorder also have an anxiety disorder. And anxiety disorders often go undiagnosed.

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) usually involves continuous anxiety or dread. This feeling can interfere with daily life. It isn’t the same as occasionally worrying or experiencing stress due to challenging life events.

People with GAD often experience persistent anxiety for months or even years.

Symptoms of GAD include:1

  • Feeling restless, wound-up, or on-edge
  • Tiredness
  • Problems concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Headaches
  • Muscle aches
  • Stomachaches
  • Unexplained pains
  • Issues controlling feelings of worry
  • Sleep problems, such as difficulty falling or remaining asleep

Having the right coping skills to handle anxiety in recovery is essential. The illusion of control can quickly come crashing down in recovery. If you have an anxiety disorder, it’s vital to seek treatment for it and any substance use problems.

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Is Addiction Recovery Scary?

Addiction recovery can be scary, but it’s natural to feel this way when contemplating recovery. If you aren’t nervous, apprehensive, or even terrified, it might mean you don’t care.

Fear signifies you’re ready to face the unknown and experience life soberly. Most people experience anxiety when they enter the doors of a recovery treatment center.

However, you’ll have to face several fears as you take the steps toward recovery. These fears will remain with you until you confront them. Fortunately, there are various ways to deal with these feelings.

Why It’s Important to Cope With Anxiety During Recovery

Relapse rates are the highest in the days following substance use addiction treatment. Anxiety can often be a trigger to use drugs once treatment is finished.

Therefore it’s essential to have a grip on anxiety in recovery so that relapse doesn’t occur. Learning how to maintain sobriety and cope with stress will also benefit your overall health in the long term.

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7 Ways to Deal With Anxiety When You’re Sober

1. Meditation

Meditation is known to help treat various mental health conditions, including anxiety and addiction. In fact, meditation can be transformative when used for anxiety. The practice helps to calm the physical and mental symptoms of anxiety.3

The key to meditation for anxiety in recovery is to focus on your breath and stop judging your thoughts. 

2. Talk with someone

Anxiety can worsen if you keep your thoughts to yourself. If you feel anxious, try to speak with someone, such as a support group member or a therapist.

Discussing your anxiety helps take power away from it. As your anxiety becomes more manageable after talking with someone, you may be able to make better decisions and think more clearly. Your support group may even be able to offer you advice that can help your anxiety go away.

3. Exercise

Physically active people typically experience lower rates of anxiety than those who aren’t. Exercise releases endorphins that can enhance a person’s mood and reduce anxiety and depression.4

As exercise can improve mental health, it’s a helpful asset in recovery. If you’re feeling anxious, try taking a walk or a short run outside to feel better.

4. Journaling

When you’re anxious, a million thoughts may run through your mind. To see the situation clearly and work through your anxiety in recovery, try writing down your thoughts.5

Seeing your thoughts and feelings on paper can help you think clearly. Plus, it can be very soothing.

5. Grounding techniques

Sometimes, anxiety can make you feel like you can’t keep up with the world. When this happens, you may obsess over anxious thoughts.

Instead of giving in to anxiety, try some grounding techniques. Grounding techniques rely on the senses.

Try to focus on three things you can smell, touch, see, and hear. This will help bring you back to the present moment so you can gather your thoughts.

6. Learn about your triggers

Part of relapse prevention when treating addiction is learning more about your triggers. You need to go through this same process with your anxiety.

Unless you’re diagnosed with GAD, you’ll need to discover the root cause of your anxiety to learn the right coping strategies to tackle them.

Common anxiety triggers include:

  • Loneliness
  • New surroundings
  • Stressful situations
  • Meeting new people
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Starting a new career or job
  • Sober living
  • Leaving a treatment center
  • Returning to school

7. Yoga

Yoga is healing and soothing in various ways. Many types of yoga include meditation, which is also good for anxiety relief. Yoga can mellow anxiety with chants, stretching, and other techniques.2

There’s yoga for 12-step recovery, too. This program combines regular yoga practice with the 12 steps and recovery themes. 

What Happens if You Relapse?

The risk is always there even if you have a solid plan to identify and manage your anxiety and relapse triggers.

Many of those who are recovering from addiction relapse, even after completing treatment. However, these episodes don’t suggest failure or mean you’re stuck with addiction forever.

Relapses are quite common and how you manage them is essential for long-term recovery. If you struggle with relapse, it may help to attend an aftercare recovery program. Or you might want to check with your therapist to see if you need a longer addiction program to face the relapse triggers around you.

Activities like meditation and yoga listed above can help you clear your mind of thoughts and refocus your awareness. These practices can help with managing emotional triggers.

Understand that relapse isn’t the end of the world. While it might feel like a defeat, you can overcome a relapse. Just remember all the progress you’ve made so far. 

Summary

  • Many people use drugs or alcohol to cope with or numb emotions. However, they may struggle with anxiety when they become sober.
  • It's essential to learn how to deal with anxiety in recovery so that relapse doesn’t occur. 
  • Some ways to deal with anxiety when sober include meditation, yoga, journaling, talking with others, and exercising.
  • Relapse is common and isn’t the end of the world. Those who relapse may want to consider an aftercare program or extending addiction treatment.
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Resources

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  1. Anxiety disorders, National Institute of National Health (NIH), 2022.
  2. Li, Amber W, and Carroll-Ann W Goldsmith. “The effects of yoga on anxiety and stress.” Alternative medicine review : a journal of clinical therapeutic, 2012.
  3. Innes, K E et al. “The effects of meditation on perceived stress and related indices of psychological status and sympathetic activation in persons with Alzheimer's disease and their caregivers: a pilot study.” Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine, 2012.
  4. Childs, Emma, and Harriet de Wit. “Regular exercise is associated with emotional resilience to acute stress in healthy adults.” Frontiers in physiology, 2014.
  5. Sohal, Monika et al. “Efficacy of journaling in the management of mental illness: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” Family medicine and community health, 2022.
  6. Menon, Jayakrishnan, and Arun Kandasamy. “Relapse prevention.” Indian journal of psychiatry, 2018.

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