“There are so many things we have no control over. Practice releasing people, situations, and things by repeating, ‘That’s not in my job description!’ You will gain freedom and some time for yourself when you quit worrying about everything you can’t do in the first place.” – Rosemary O’Connor
After spending years in the addiction cycle, the concept of self-care can feel like foreign territory. It is, however, a key component to long-term success. According to the Addictions Community at Healthy Place, “Drug addiction changes the way the brain functions and impacts how the body perceives pleasure … The brain adapts and comes to expect, and depend on, these drug-induced highs.”
Once an addict has entered recovery, however, the brain begins to recalibrate and the “fix” once afforded by drugs and alcohol can be slowly replaced with healthier options. The term “self-care” is quite broad, but it can be broken down into physical, social, and emotional subcategories.
Drug and alcohol abuse leaves little room for healthy physical outlets. When one’s time is dedicated to getting high, battling hangovers, and seeking out the next “fix”, little time is left for exercise and nutrition. Recovery affords addicts with the opportunity to introduce physical wellness into the daily routine.
Understandably, many addicts enter recovery with concerns about the damage they’ve done to their bodies, and different drugs impact the body in different ways. It is important to reintroduce exercise and dietary changes in a deliberate and gradual way with input from the treatment team. The body has an incredible ability to heal from years of abuse, but the transformation will not happen overnight.
Opportunities for exercise are countless, but may include: yoga, walking/jogging, cycling, swimming, dance, martial arts, team sports, rock climbing, tennis, aerobics, and pilates.
Physical self-care also includes activities that promote relaxation, health, and hygiene like: warm baths, massages, facials, saunas, haircuts, manicures, and regular dental and doctor visits.
Nutrition is an equally important factor in physical recovery from drug and alcohol abuse. Many addicts subside on the bare minimum of nutrients and focus solely on their drug of choice. According to The Fix, “A person consumed by addiction is less likely to eat healthfully. Some drugs cause you to eat too much, others too little. At the height of their drinking, alcoholics often derive as much as 50 percent of their daily calorie allowance from alcohol itself.”
Because every substance wreaks havoc on the body in unique ways, it can prove quite useful to consult a nutritionist or addictions specialist when considering your recovery diet. While instinct might tell you that anything is better for your body than drugs and alcohol, paying due attention to nutrients can encourage a more successful recovery.
Once an addict enters recovery, they is often forced to evaluate her social circles. It’s quite common for addicts to gravitate toward people and places that promote unhealthy behaviors. The prospect of forging new friendships and frequenting new places can feel overwhelming, but a supportive addiction community will help an addict ease into new social outlets at a pace that feels comfortable.
Sober communities like AA and SMART are an obvious starting point for the social aspects of recovery. In fact, many treatment programs encourage participation in these groups. Additionally, many addicts are supplementing their face-to-face supports with digital supports.
Once an addict feels he or she has laid a healthy social foundation within the recovery community, it can prove an appropriate time to explore additional options.
The prospects for social self-care opportunities are quite limitless, but include: book clubs, sports teams, continuing education courses, pet enthusiasts, fishing/hunting clubs, art classes, fitness groups, and outdoor enthusiasts. With websites like Meetup.com taking the social scene by storm, it is easier than ever to connect with like-minded individuals in activities that don’t center around drugs and alcohol.
Promises Treatment Centers attests, “Self-love isn’t the same as self-centeredness. Making the effort to love yourself is an early part of healing from all the years you practiced self-neglect and self-abuse.” And it comes as no surprise that sobriety is about far more than abstaining from substances. The emotional implications are immediate when an addict enters recovery and must be addressed just as readily as the physical components of treatment.
Connecting with a treatment team will likely be one of the addict’s first acts of emotional self-care, and that team can serve as a “home base” while additional efforts are explored. Trained professionals like therapists and addiction specialists will introduce the addict to individualized emotional coping strategies. These can range from breathing techniques to strategies that allow the addict to challenge negative thought patterns while incorporating healthier ones.
More and more treatment programs are incorporating elements of mindfulness practice into recovery. Essentially, it’s a means of noting one’s emotional and physical conditions without judgement or action. It is about being present in the moment without trying to alter it in any way. A mindfulness routine is not limited to meditation, but it can incorporate elements of journaling, walking, music, movement, and even the martial arts. For many, mindfulness in considered as a spiritual practice that is critical in maintaining sobriety.
Because many people enter treatment expressing discomfort with the religious implications of traditional twelve-step programs, it’s important to note the difference between religion and spirituality. New Hope Recovery Center attests that, “Spirituality is a personal search for meaning in life, for connection with all things and for the experience of a power beyond oneself. Some find it helpful to think of religion as rules or practices agreed to by a number of people, whereas spirituality is completely related to one’s individual experience and connections.”
Attendance to spirituality is based on individual preference and is not a prerequisite for addiction recovery. Like physical and social self-care, one’s emotional and spiritual needs are unique and a trained treatment team will take that into account.
Self-Love Leads to Self-Care
Of this, I am actually certain. After collecting thousands of stories, I’m willing to call this a fact: A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all women, men, and children. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick – Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
Perhaps the greatest barrier for addicts in establishing a healthy self-care routine is a sense of worthlessness. After years of battling the guilt and anguish that accompany substance abuse, an addict’s self-image suffers immensely. Through comprehensive treatment, an addict can learn to embrace the imperfections and weaknesses that have proven so overwhelming in the past. And once self-love begins to re-emerge, so does the ability to receive love and trust from others.
When an addict successfully replaces his negative self-talk with statements like, “I am worthy” and “I love myself enough to make healthy choices,” hope abounds.. And while cessation of drug and alcohol use is a tremendous step in the recovery process, establishing a mindset of self-love and care are equally critical. When an addict nurtures her physical, social, and emotional health, her life begins to gain new dimensions. And as a recovering addict grows more committed to these healthy practices, the more likely she is to maintain a sober lifestyle.
Jen Anderson is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), Sobriety Coach, and former alcohol enthusiast living in Florida with her husband and son.