Many alcoholics suffer from depression and anxiety, and getting sober and committing to spiritual growth does not automatically cure those conditions. Today’s guest post talks about the importance of putting sobriety first, and offers some healthy approaches to dealing with depression and anxiety. You may read the original post here.
In gratitude, harmony and support,
Reality Check: Sobriety and Mental Health in the New Year
There’s something magical about the start of a new year. For many of us, it signifies a time when we can start over and feel renewed – resolve to be and do better things with our lives. We set goals. We make promises to others and ourselves. We begin to take action, buy juicers, gym memberships, fancy planners. THIS will be THE year. The optimism is palpable. That vision board you just made is filling up. You can actually see yourself in this new light and it feels absolutely incredible.
Until it doesn’t. Reality always shows up, eventually.
I don’t know what it’s like for those who don’t suffer from anxiety and depression, but for me, mood and motivation remains a constant roller coaster. I swing high for a period of time, and then crash down into varying degrees of low. When you’re trying to stay sober, this adds an added layer to the challenges. A week or two ago, I felt like a different person. Now, as we round out the second week of the new year, I’m having to deal with old demons once again.
I’m writing this in the middle of a lull (which is why it’s taken so long) and because I know there are thousands of people out there struggling with mental health issues while navigating their sobriety, I want to share some thoughts for how to push through when you start to come down off that resolution high.
Put Your Sobriety Ahead of all other Goals
When I’m feeling energized and my anxiety and depression are nowhere to be found, I tend to set a lot of goals for myself. I quit drinking (the BIG goal), but I also quit smoking, started exercising regularly, cut back on eating out so much, and poured a lot of energy and effort into getting my blog out there. I feel effective, healthy, and inspired when my mood is stable. I get a lot done in these periods.
Then the lull hits. Suddenly I don’t have the same energy as before. It’s hard to find motivation to do more than watch Netflix after work and maybe cook dinner. Projects fall to the wayside; I miss some days at the gym. Even meeting someone for dinner or dressing up to leave the house for non-essential activities becomes overbearing. What happened? How did so much change in the span of a week? I start to obsess about why I’m so down, which only drags me down further.
It’s very easy in these moments to submit to the anxiety and give up. You’ve already ordered pizza twice this week and the gym hasn’t seen you in ten days. All the goals you set seem ridiculous all of the sudden. Of course you can’t do any of those things. Might as well crack open a bottle and pack of smokes. Right? The internal dialogue that says you’re a failure perks up. It all feels like too much and you start to remember why you drank.
If you’ve put too much on your plate, give yourself space to make mistakes in other areas, accept that you will be able to get back on track, and protect sobriety at all costs. If you slip up on the diet, or the gym schedule, or cave in a moment of weakness and have a smoke, it’s okay. You’ll get where you want to be eventually, but only if you stay sober. These lulls will likely pass soon (more on what to do if they don’t below).
Monitor your Mood and Take Action when Necessary
It isn’t always enough just to stay away from alcohol and grit your teeth through a bad week. Sometimes you’re doing more than just caving on your diet and slacking on the fitness; your other bad habits are becoming the norm and not the exception.
If you’re noticing that your mood hasn’t shifted and you’re becoming increasingly isolated, detached, or “in your head”, make an appointment with a mental health specialist and get on a treatment plan that works for you, whether that be medication, cognitive behavioral therapy, or a combination of the two. Connect with your support systems – close friends, meetings, therapists – and do what you need to do to feel balanced again while keeping your sobriety intact.
For many of us, alcohol was a means for self-medicating depression and anxiety. Remember this when you’re feeling the pull to go back to the booze. I’ve had moments of craving where I’ve said, “Hey at least drinking away your woes feels somewhat ‘normal’ whereas pills and therapists certainly do not.” Don’t self-sabotage and believe your own lies. Remember the reasons you got sober and open yourself up to getting the help you need when you know you’re not able to fully manage it on your own.
Many studies have shown the positive effect of exercise on the brain. When we’re feeling overwhelmed, exercise helps increase the concentration of norepinephrine, the chemical responsible for moderating our brain’s response to stress.
The extra shot of endorphins is always a welcomed bonus. For me, drinking meant sitting and stewing in my own thoughts and emotions often for hours on end. Even in sobriety, moments of anxiety often thrust me back inside my brain where I dwell, overthink, and play out any number of worst-case scenarios for situations that may or may not actually exist in real life. Exercise helps clear that space back up.
Personally, I would not have been able to come off my anti-depressant medication without incorporating some form of exercise in my life. When my workouts lapse for more than a week, I can feel it in my mood. Whether you’re currently on medication or managing your depression and anxiety without, you need to stay active.
It’s a cruel irony, I know, given how demotivating depression can be, but it’s the reality we’ve been dealt. Pick something you enjoy. Go for a walk or bicycle ride, hit the gym, take a fun class. You don’t have to over-exert yourself to get the benefits, but you do have to get your heart rate up. Force yourself to get out there, even if it’s just a couple times per week.
Conversely, don’t commit yourself to a workout schedule or regiment that you’re not physically or emotionally ready for. Yes, Instagram makes it seem like you can bust your ass for eight weeks straight and come out looking like a whole new person. I’ve ordered so many programs that promise to deliver results (and probably do to the truly committed), only to find that I couldn’t do the exercises, or I hated the routine, or I just got real with myself and realized I wasn’t going to work out hard for an hour six days a week. Start where you are and enjoy it.
Self-care, Self-care, Self-care
This term gets bandied about a lot these days and is often used to promote expensive beauty regiments or the latest DIY craze, which is fine, but not really what I’m interested in talking about. Self-care for people in recovery as well as those with mental health issues can look vastly different from what the magazines show. I wish green tea and a bubble bath were enough to take the edge off, but it’s just not my reality.
Everyone should define self-care for him or herself. At the core, self-care is getting clear about what we need in order to stay sober and well. For me, I need to avoid stressful scenes when I can and for my desire to be alone sometimes in quiet spaces to be respected by the people in my life. Meditation has been tremendously helpful for me, so I insist (with varying degrees of success) on carving out time to do it regularly. I rarely allow myself to feel pressured into social settings that could hurt my sobriety and I’m learning to get more comfortable telling people ‘no’ without launching into longwinded explanations about why. No. Thank you for the invite. Keep me in mind for next time.
As we start to really dive into 2017, it’s important to maintain perspective. It’s unlikely (although possible) that we’re going to fix everything all at once. If you stopped drinking, smoking, eating fast food, and being a Netflix junkie on January 1st and now find that you’re overwhelmed and collapsing under the weight of your goals, give yourself permission to slow down.
Keep sobriety at the top of your list and prioritize from there. If depression and anxiety have popped back up to remind you that they’re still around, allow yourself whatever it is you need to handle it. Even if it means you lose a little momentum and spend eight days trying to cut through the fog to write something again that feels useful or relevant and doesn’t drag anyone down. Give yourself time. End with a weird, slightly shitty paragraph if it’s the best you can do. But always and in all things this year, no matter the highs or lows, remain sober.