Coping with stress and finding healthy ways to deal with tricky or demanding situations is vital for living a happy and productive life. Raising awareness and encouraging support, amongst friends, colleagues and in the community is a huge step towards helping to address and treat all psychological conditions.
Stress is natural, it is our body’s reaction to pressure. A physical and emotional response to a thought, situation, or event that we find difficult, frustrating, or challenging. Short-term or low-level stress can even be beneficial, it is a great motivator to complete a task, stay alert, or to ensure we avoid danger.
Long-term, or chronic, stress however can be dangerous. It can lead to other serious mental health conditions such as burnout, depression, and PTSD. Research has also shown that people exposed to stress are more likely to abuse alcohol or drugs and be susceptible to addiction and relapse.
Stress affects people differently and we all have our own ways of dealing with it. For some, it is the use of substances. Whilst it might seem like a pleasant concept to sit down with a glass of wine, or to smoke a joint, at the end of a long and difficult day – using alcohol and drugs to manage stress isn’t an effective (or healthy) solution. For a start, it doesn’t really deal with the problem, or the stressor itself – it is just masking the pain, and repeated use of substances over time can lead to other serious mental health problems.
It is understood that being exposed to stress for an extended period, or dealing with a traumatic event or events, is a risk factor in nearly every psychological condition, including substance abuse.
Substance abuse is defined as the repeated, harmful, or hazardous use of an intoxicant such as alcohol, illicit drugs, or prescription medication. This could be because the use has physical or mental health consequences, impacts upon financial or relationship responsibilities, causes the user to engage in anti-social behaviour, or because the use of the substance can lead to criminal and legal problems.
There are many signs of stress, and it can manifest in different ways. It causes both physical and psychological symptoms, and at times will alter the way someone behaves.
Physical symptoms can include –
• Racing heart and chest pains.
• High or raised blood pressure.
• Difficulty sleeping – despite feeling exhausted.
• Headaches and dizziness.
• Tension in the muscles, jaw clenching or teeth grinding.
• Tummy and digestive problems.
• Problems having sex, or low libido.
• Poor immune system – increased colds and infections.
• Forgetfulness and trouble focusing.
Emotional and mental symptoms such as –
• Anxiety and panic attacks.
• Irritability and anger.
• Worry and fear.
Everyone feels stressed at times, it often occurs when we don’t feel completely in control of a situation when we can’t predict the outcome, are facing big changes in our lives, or are worried about a person or an event.
Stress can be a reaction to a single situation, or it could be a build-up from several smaller incidents. It can even happen when we are participating in a joyous event – such as getting married.
A major stressor for a large proportion of people is work. Fear over losing a job, being unhappy but staying because of financial insecurity, poor management, unsafe or unsatisfactory working conditions, extreme pressure, too much responsibility, or a hostile or discriminatory atmosphere can all place enormous stress on someone over a long period of time and can lead to burnout and breakdowns.
Other causes of stress can be attributed to external life events, and these can include –
• Death of a loved one.
• Long-term illness or an injury.
• Divorce and separation.
• Loss of a job.
• Caring for an elderly or sick relative.
• New baby.
• Getting married.
• Moving house.
• Traumatic event – a natural disaster, violence, sexual assault, being burglarized.
Sometimes the stress comes from within and can occur because of worrying. This could be a concern about a specific situation happening at that time – not being able to pay the bills or meeting a deadline. It could be a more generalised fear about what is happening in the world at large. For example, watching tv news reports of war, disasters or terrorism can all make it feel very close to home, and that can cause anxiety.
No-one can avoid stress completely and it is a big risk factor in relapse for those in addiction recovery.
To have a successful and positive long-term sobriety, it is important to learn how to manage stressful situations and emotions; and how to avoid the people, places and circumstances that lead to anxiety, pressure, and potential relapse.
Some tips to help manage stress in addiction recovery –
Having Support – Make sure you have a good support network – good friends, a sponsor, an advisor, someone who will be there for you when it all gets a bit much. Regular attendance at recovery meetings, group therapy, or scheduled visits with a counsellor also really help. Having people who are happy to listen, not judge, and who understand what you are going through can be a real lifesaver when you are struggling or feeling under pressure.
Attitude – Practising an “attitude of gratitude” can really increase your overall well-being and reduce stress. Feeling grateful makes it almost impossible to feel angry and upset. Looking for positives in a situation, or your life in general, rather than focusing on negatives and the things that are (in your opinion) going wrong, can really help change your mood and outlook.
Expectations – Don’t set your expectations of people, places, or events too high – and that includes yourself. Don’t set unrealistic goals that are going to be difficult (if not impossible) to meet. Don’t try and do everything at once.
Set yourself some clear attainable objectives and get to them bit by bit. If you have a huge task to complete, break it up into smaller parts. If something is feeling overwhelming talk to someone who can help you set out a plan of action. Don’t put yourself under unnecessary pressure.
Look after yourself – Make sure you are looking after your body’s needs. Getting enough sleep, eating regularly and healthily, doing some exercise – even if it is just a walk in the park, all of these are essential for good mental and physical wellbeing.
Letting go – Learn to let go of the stuff you can’t control. Anything external, i.e., other people and circumstances, you have no power over them. The only thing you can be in control of is your actions and reactions; work on walking away, doing the next right thing, and not reacting badly when things aren’t happening exactly the way you want.
It is also important to let go of how things used to be. You can’t expect things to change if nothing changes. If you are still hanging out with the people you used substances with, in the places you drank or drugged, then you are going to have trouble – you need to let go of the past and build a new future, a clean and sober one.
Here at our luxury residential rehab centre, set on the idyllic Balearic Island of Ibiza, we treat clients struggling with alcoholism, addiction, and substance abuse, as well as other underlying and co-occurring mental health conditions such as burnout, trauma, anxiety, and depression.