Anxiety & Substance Use Recovery

Entering into substance use recovery is an insanely brave and empowering choice. It means taking an active role in your health, both physical and mental, while finding the courage to cope in brand new ways. It’s also (you guessed it) uncomfortable, hard and daunting.

Whether your addiction stemmed from an untreated anxiety disorder has little to do with the experience of anxiety in early recovery. It’s an almost universal side effect to the detox and short-term stages of recovery. Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (which can last for up to a year!) is hallmarked by anxiety and restlessness as your brain finds new way to rewire reward centers.

Racing thoughts, elevated heart rate, crawling out of your skin: all these anxiety symptoms are perfectly normal in the recovery process. Learning to cope and move through your anxiety is a different story. You don’t need to just lay back and let anxiety wash over you! Part of recovery is developing coping mechanisms to apply to these symptoms when they start to disrupt our life.

So how do we start? Before we can even move into coping, we need to develop self-awareness around how our anxiety is manifesting. Start by asking yourself these questions:

  1. Can I feel my anxiety in my body? If so, where?
  2. What situations typically cause me to feel anxiety?
  3. Can I remember what happens before I start to experience anxiety?
  4. What has helped me soothe anxiety in the past? (It’s okay if the answer is your addiction - that’s helpful info!)

Starting to understand the building blocks of your anxiety will get you closer to the root, which ultimately can lead you to healthy coping skills that are individualized to you. Once we start to build awareness on how our anxiety manifests and sustains, we are more likely to recognize it in everyday situations. Starting to recognize it not only allows us to cope more effectively, but it starts to erase the idea that you can’t cope and will always suffer.

Specifically if anxiety was a primary driver for your addiction, understanding and working towards integration and softening of anxiety symptoms will be a critical component of maintaining your recovery, and your mental wellness.

Coping comes in many different forms. For some, the experience of exercise and movement can help ease the feeling of tension beneath the skin. Your head is still wired to seek release in the form of your substance of choice, and when that doesn’t occur we can start to feel pent up. Moving your body, regardless of how small or big the movement is, allows release to begin.

And did you know distraction is considered a coping skill? In fact, it’s one of my favorites. I’ve found that those in substance use recovery tend to be overachievers, while also being tremendously hard on themselves, so this skill is at the bottom of the pile when it comes to coping in healthy ways. I’m not saying avoid your problems, but rather give yourself a break. You’re allowed to have exit plans, avoid triggering situations, and give yourself permission to say no.

Additionally, utilizing support systems eases anxiety by not only offering support, but by providing the experience of universality and understanding that you are not alone. This is often referred to in recovery circles as a “network” and helps break you out of thought patterns that tell you that you’re alone or terminally unique.

I could go on and on about coping skills: mindfulness, self-care, opposite action, routine, professional support, medication. You name it, it can be used to holistically soothe your anxiety during and throughout the recovery process. But the main thing I want to emphasize is the sheer normalcy of experiencing anxiety as you begin your recovery journey. I.e - it would be weird if you didn’t feel anxious.

So practice the most important skill of all when it comes to anxiety and substance use - go slow, be patient, practice self-compassion. Without these keys, we may get trapped in our stinkin’ thinkin’ and lead ourselves down the path of relapse.

As always, rooting for you.

Alexa Cordry, LSW, LCADC

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Alexa Cordry, LSW, LCADC

Alexa Cordry, LSW, LCADC