Coping Strategies for Recovery

March 5, 2009 by Emily Battaglia 

Learning healthy and effective coping strategies is a crucial component of recovery. Coping strategies are tools for dealing with stress and turmoil without returning to substance abuse. A coping strategy is basically a personal action plan. It identifies a particular stressor or trigger for substance use, includes an understanding of why or how that particular situation encourages an individual to use, and articulates specific physical and mental actions to counter this influence.

Any addiction treatment expert will agree with the statement “relapse is not an event, it’s a process.” Relapse, the antithesis of recovery, is not something that simply blindsides the recovering individual. It is the product of a series of unhealthy decisions and an inability to cope effectively with negative influences. Relapse is an act, and like many unhealthy acts, it begins as a thought. This thought feeds into a pattern of thinking, which triggers an emotional response, which then leads the recovering individual back into the mental and/or physical circumstances that first drove him to substance abuse. An effective coping strategy, therefore, can be as simple as identifying that first thought, understanding where it came from or what triggered it, and making a conscious decision to reject it.

Coping strategies can also involve physical actions. It is highly recommended that individuals in recovery avoid places, people, and situations that are connected to their addiction. Small things such as the time of day and music can also make a difference. If a recovering alcoholic returns to his favorite bar at night (his habitual time for drinking), sees all his old buddies drinking, and hears his favorite drinking song on the jukebox, his ability to avoid relapse becomes seriously compromised. The place, time of day, people, and music are all triggering emotional responses that encourage him to drink. An effective coping strategy, in this case, is to avoid a situation that holds such strong triggers.

Some experts believe that relapse happens in three stages – emotional, mental, and finally physical. During the first two stages, coping strategies can be instrumental in defusing relapse. Emotional relapse describes the typical emotions experienced by an individual who has not started using again but whose emotions are becoming unhealthy. Behaviors associated with emotional relapse may include anger, intolerance, impatience, anxiety, unhealthy eating or sleeping patterns, isolation, and mood swings. Emotional relapse is thought to be the first stage of relapse; because it is the first stage, it is also the best time to address the problem.

As the process of relapse gains momentum, it gets harder and harder to escape. A good way to subvert relapse at the emotional stage is to break isolation, reach out to others, and make a concerted effort at self-care. These actions reinforce healthy self-esteem and supportive connections. Self-esteem is a strong protective force against relapse because every recovering addict knows, deep down, that substance abuse is the opposite of self-love.

Mental relapse, the second phase, involves actually thinking about using. It usually starts as a passing thought, but progresses to a constant hum of thoughts centered on using again. Behaviors associated with mental relapse include lying, fantasizing about using, nostalgia about past using and things that happened while using, and spending time with friends who still use.

Coping strategies for mental relapse are similar to those for emotional relapse. It’s important to connect with someone who is a positive influence and tell that person what you’re thinking. This can have the dual effect of making the consequences of relapse more real and countering the influence of addiction to seek isolation and secrecy. When thoughts associated with mental relapse become repetitive or oppressive, it’s important to take positive action to refocus attention on healthy priorities, such as spending time with loved ones, exercising, walking the family dog, or doing something that is self-nurturing.

by McKayla Arnold


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