All the Feels: Dealing With Depression and Anxiety in Early Recovery
How can we as newly sober people deal with the abundance of feelings and emotions that surface, seemingly from out of nowhere? Left without our usual ways of coping, how do we get to the other side without using or acting out?
Many of us in early recovery have been overcome with intense waves of emotions like anxiousness, regret, and depression. They made even casual tasks difficult, and it was hard to imagine getting through a full day sober, let alone a lifetime.
What often short circuits our ability to stay clean and sober for any length is an unwillingness to feel uncomfortable, even for a little while. We assume it will always be like this, and sober living will just be a white-knuckling, teeth-grinding slog through life. The reality is, it doesn’t have to be this way! It will pass, and the only way out is through.
Here are some of the tools we have used to address difficult emotions in early recovery:
Get into service
Helping others is a front-line defense when times are tough. It distracts us from ourselves, and we often return to our problems with fresh perspective and a renewed spirit. Helping other alcoholics or addicts is a great place to start, and seldom fails to give an emotional boost. A kind word of thanks to a cashier, letting someone into our lane while driving, or smiling at strangers also count. They are good practice, and remind us that the world is bigger than us.
While we were drinking and using, our lives were getting smaller by the day. As part of our sober journeys, we need fresh interests and hobbies. Getting out into the world and doing things often boosts our confidence and reminds us of who were we before our addictions robbed us of full lives. Physical activities like yoga, running, and climbing do magic for the mind, body and spirit.
Feelings aren’t facts
A great practice for those of us just learning to deal with uncomfortable emotions in healthy ways is to acknowledge the emotion and let it pass. We can look at it, nod to it, feel how it feels, and let it go. When hard thoughts arise, we can notice them like cars passing. We see them go by, but we don’t need to take a long ride in each one.
Fake it till you make it
AKA “acting as if.” We can literally re-wire our brains by acting as if we were well-rounded, healthy individuals. When in doubt, ask yourself “how would a sane, happy person react to this situation?” Then act accordingly. Often we’ll find that our feelings will eventually catch up with our actions. We gain new levels of confidence and self-esteem as we act esteemably.
Stop thinking about yourself
So often when anxiousness and depression arise, we grab on and dive in. We turn on sad songs, isolate ourselves, and dwell morosely on our troubles. This approach seldom helps, and only adds fuel to the fire. We can’t solve a problem with the same tool that created it, so getting out of our heads for awhile will generally give us some relief. Talking to someone else, being of service, or getting absorbed in an activity are all great diversions.
Get to a meeting or support group
A 12 step-meeting or support group is an excellent venue for learning new ways to deal with uncomfortable emotions. They remind us to engage in the step we are on, and often our pain drives us to dive into the work more wholeheartedly. Inventory, amends, prayer and meditation offer us a path to real and lasting freedom from our discomfort with life itself. Also, being surrounded by people with similar experience, who have gotten to the other side, gives us an invaluable sense of connection and comfort. Sharing what you are going through and reaching out to others lessens the sense of isolation and panic, and steadies us enough to keep us on the path for another day.
A final word—a new life lies on the other side of your discomfort! Right actions will pave the way. Practice acting better than you feel, it’s all any of us are doing most of the time, anyway.
Please note: if you’re having thoughts of suicide and/or have had trouble with chronic, recurring depression or anxiety in the past, it is advisable to speak to a mental health professional as soon as possible. Crisis resources in your area can be found here, or at 1-800-273-8255.