inhale. exhale.

Coping with Stress in recoveryWe all experience it.

For many alcoholics and addicts in recovery, stress is the leading contributor to declining health, dissatisfaction, and relapse.

People use the word “stress” to describe a wide variety of situations – from a cell phone ringing while they’re talking on another phone – to the feelings associated with intense work overload or the death of a loved-one or not knowing what to wear to a party or having too many people talking at the same time.

That’s not a terribly helpful description, though.

We need something more concrete to work with.

The most useful and widely accepted academic/ clinical definition of stress (attributed to Richard S. Lazarus) is this:

Stress is a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that “demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.”

We addicts have two unique challenges in dealing with stress.

The first is a bizarre mind habit: we love to take responsibility for things we can’t possibly control while ignoring the many daily responsibilities we can.

We reverse the serenity prayer.

We take responsibility for the well-being of a sick family member, about some stranger’s opinion of us, about an upcoming school semester, about what we will do after graduation, about whether we will ever meet our one true love… and we don’t take responsibility for waking up on time for work, for having a good night’s rest, for eating well, for going to a meeting, for doing step work, for calling our sponsor, for praying and meditating, for scheduling an appointment with a doctor….

Weird, huh?

The second challenge is a confused reaction to life (regular, non-addicted people do the same thing, they just don’t drink themselves to death as a result): we think of and experience stress as something CAUSED by life events, not as it truly is: an INTERNAL REACTION to life events.

We think stress is an actual “thing” that has a distinguishable cause.

In our way of thinking, if we eliminate the cause, we’ll eliminate the stress.

The components of anxiety, stress, fear, and anger do not exist independently of you in the world. They simply do not exist in the physical world, even though we talk about them as if they do. Stress is an experience, not an independent reality.  Wayne Dyer

For example, starting a new job could be an exciting experience if everything else in our lives is stable and positive. But if we start a new job after moving, or while our partner is ill, or when experiencing money problems, or in early recovery… we can find it very hard to cope.

How much of all this crap does it take to push us “over the edge”?

For the addict and alcoholic? Not very much at all.

puppy stress relief

Great advice Mr. Puppy. (How do I do that without getting arrested?)

Since everyone recognizes that addicts and alcoholics tend to have a significant  inability \ coping with stressors effectively, simply knowing what kinds of things might be adding to our current stress load is helpful.  The Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS) — more commonly known as the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale — was created to do just that: measure the stress load a person carries.

Stress Scale

Count up the numbers and take a deep breath.

Looks like we’re carrying around a heavier stress load than we thought. We’re stressed out, freaked out, anxious as hell, and barely capable of finding the remote and turning on Netflix.

Now what?

From the Literature

While the Big Book doesn’t mention stress much (unsurprising… emotional, psychological stress wasn’t much of a “thing” during the thirties and forties). The 12&12 does mention coping mechanisms and stress, though indirectly:

But all who are in the least reasonable will agree upon one point: that there is plenty wrong with us alcoholics about which plenty will have to be done if we are to expect sobriety, progress, and any real ability to cope with life.    (12&12; 48)

In the morning we think of the hours to come. Perhaps we think of our day’s work and the chances it may afford us to be useful and helpful, or of some special problem that it may bring. Possibly today will see a continuation of a serious and as yet unresolved problem left over from yesterday. Our immediate temptation will be to ask for specific solutions to specific problems, and for the ability to help other people as we have already thought they should be helped. In that case, we are asking God to do it our way. Therefore, we ought to consider each request carefully to see what its real merit is. Even so, when making specific requests, it will be well to add to each one of them this qualification: “…if it be Thy will.” We ask simply that throughout the day God place in us the best understanding of His will that we can have for that day, and that we be given the grace by which we may carry it out.

As the day goes on, we can pause where situations must be met and decisions made, and renew the simple request: “Thy will, not mine, be done.” If at these points our emotional disturbance happens to be great, we will more surely keep our balance, provided we remember, and repeat to ourselves, a particular prayer or phrase that has appealed to us in our reading or meditation. Just saying it over and over will often enable us to clear a channel choked up with anger, fear, frustration, or misunderstanding, and permit us to return to the surest help of all—our search for God’s will, not our own, in the moment of stress. At these critical moments, if we remind ourselves that “it is better to comfort than to be comforted, to understand than to be understood, to love than to be loved,” we will be following the intent of Step Eleven.      (12&12; 102-103)

Our basic troubles are the same as everyone else’s, but when an honest effort is made “to practice these principles in all our affairs,” well-grounded A.A.’s seem to have the ability, by God’s grace, to take these troubles in stride and turn them into demonstrations of faith.      (12&12; 114)

At least one thing is clear, surrender plays a big role in dealing with stress and is the recovering person’s first step (HA!) in coping with difficult situations and emotions. But what exactly does this kind of surrendering look like and how shall we begin?


The Lifelong Practice of Surrender

Our understanding of surrender may change over time, but our need for it does not. In the beginning, surrender might just be about not using drugs. As time goes by, we start to see other ways our addiction plays out in our lives. We become willing to surrender other behaviors, sometimes one by one. We come to understand that using—whatever we are using—is just a symptom of our problem, which is spiritual in nature. Gradually we start to let go of the things that drive us to act out: denial, anger, resentment, the need to be right, the feelings of superiority or inferiority, shame, remorse, and fear.

As our understanding of the First Step grows, we surrender more deeply. Our trust grows, and we become a little more willing to let go. We can see more areas of our lives where we still cling to the illusion of control. Surrender rarely looks appealing in the beginning, but it takes us progressively less time to notice when what we are doing isn’t working. At first we may let go only when we are beaten, but our tolerance for pain diminishes as we recover. We are less willing to go along with things that wound our spirit. As we have more experience with the hope and healing that follows, we can recognize surrender as a way we put our feet back on the ground. The shift from thinking that we surrender to our disease to realizing that we can surrender to our recovery is a spiritual awakening in itself.

Changing our perception is like seeing the world through a different pair of glasses. Surrender is a shift in perception: We are no longer looking for an angle at which we can take control. Honesty can shift our perception: It opens us to the truth. We concern ourselves less with what other people might think of us, and find instead that we are answerable to our own morals and values. We begin to see more clearly what it might mean to live according to the will of our Higher Power. Each time we surrender, our world opens up a little more. We can see past our obsession and accept the possibility of a change in our perception. We might take a deep breath and ask ourselves what would happen if we just let go. Our faith grows through our experience, and gives us the opportunity to see our lives from a different perspective. As we gain experience, we don’t feel as much like we have to go out on a limb to act on our beliefs. We begin to trust that the result of letting go will not be a calamity. A series of spiritual awakenings add up to a steady faith.

Fear is a natural feeling. The question is what we do with it. Steps Three and Eleven allow us to invite a loving Higher Power into our decisions, and Step Ten helps us to check ourselves as we go. We are often the last ones to see or acknowledge our own growth. When we see other members recovering and their lives improving, we are reminded that the same is happening for us. As our awareness deepens, we continue to find areas of our lives that need work. As we change, we adjust. And as we adjust, our balance shifts and we change some more. Feeling like we know it all is often followed by the feeling that we know nothing. It’s a nice feeling, for the moment that it lasts—and then we get to learn more about surrender.

We learn not to take ourselves too seriously. At the end of the road, nothing was funny anymore, but as we let go of worry, shame, anger, and confusion, we start to relax. One of the gifts of recovery is regaining our sense of humor. It comes and goes, of course, but when we lose our sense of humor it’s a pretty good sign that we could benefit from a change in perspective. A member shared about a woman in her home group whose laugh would fill the room: “Her laughter gave me hope. It had so much love and self-acceptance in it. You could hear the joy.” We can laugh because things are meaningful, or because we know that it’s going to be okay. We can see the magic and the irony in our lives, and enjoy it. Lightening up is a necessary step on the way to enlightenment! The humor we find in one another’s stories is one way we know we are in the right place. What’s funny to us tends to change as we grow. We are less amused by the suffering of others, and more able to see the lighter side of heavy situations.

(Living Clean, 213)

Hope that helps.



Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s