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Healthy exercise can be a way to self-soothe without drugs or alcohol.
December 12, 2016

10 Easy Ways to Self-Soothe Without Drugs or Alcohol

Healthy exercise can be a way to self-soothe without drugs or alcohol.This month’s theme is about “dual diagnosis,” meaning another mental illness that coexists with a substance use disorder (SUD). The term reportedly describes roughly half of all people in recovery from addiction, for whom dual diagnosis treatment is essential in the journey towards freedom from drugs and alcohol.

In fact, that estimate may be conservative. Consider, for example, the following rates of dual diagnosis pertaining to specific drugs of abuse, and as measured across a lifetime, in a study in 1990:

  • 1 percent for cocaine
  • 7 percent for barbiturates
  • 2 percent for opiates
  • 6 percent for alcohol

A great amount of scientific literature testifies that people with a dual diagnosis are more prone to addiction, as the result of using drugs and/or alcohol to self-medicate and self-soothe the symptoms of a co-occurring disorder (COD). Classic examples are efforts to counteract clinical depression with stimulants or dull it with sedatives, opioids, alcohol or marijuana. Alternatively, someone with a diagnosis of anxiety or manic-depressive symptoms may be more vulnerable to sedatives, opioids or marijuana.

The other reality is that a co-occurring disorder may itself be associated with dysfunctional forms of self-soothing. For example, someone with a dual diagnosis of depression may isolate themselves from others, rather than seeking outlets for empathic connection and support. Or, someone with an eating disorder may compulsively binge eat or avoid eating in an effort to cope with difficult emotions.

So much of recovery from drugs or alcohol, then, is about finding healthy ways to self-soothe without a substance. Below are three suggestions for doing just that, recognizing there are others. (If you’ve found one that’s not on this short list, please share it with the rest of us!):

10 Sober Self-Soothing Ideas

Self-soothing is not a need or behavior that only characterizes those with a dual diagnosis. On the contrary, self-soothing is a very normal part of what it means to be human. Research has shown that even emotionally healthy, well-adjusted people (who may or may not have a dual diagnosis for which they are getting help) report engaging in various self-soothing behaviors in the face of emotional strain or stress. Some of these more generalized behaviors include:

  • Seeking “social proximity” to others
  • Verbalizing emotions
  • Seeking warm touch or physical warmth
  • Listening to soothing music
  • Consuming comfort foods

For those in recovery from a dual diagnosis, then, the following might classify as more concrete examples of the above behaviors:

  1. Attending a 12-Step meeting or joining friends for a fun and sober form of entertainment (seeking social proximity to others)
  2. Calling a close friend and venting, consulting a therapist, or even letting out your feelings to the person in the mirror (verbalizing emotions)
  3. Getting a massage, hugging someone else, or (if you’re alone) giving yourself a big bear hug (seeking warm touch)
  4. Sitting in a sauna, Jacuzzi or warm bath (seeking physical warmth)
  5. Playing a favorite upbeat tune while dancing and singing along or mindfully tuning in to a more relaxing piece (listening to soothing music)
  6. Indulging in a favorite comfort food (with the potential exception being situations in which a dually diagnosed eating disorder may warrant finding an alternative form of self-soothing)

Here are some other forms of self-soothing, based on what also has worked for my clients:

  1. Running and/or other forms of vigorous exercise
  2. Yoga
  3. Time spent in nature and the outdoors, like hikes in the mountains or walks on the beach

And, clocking in as #10 on a list of 10 ways to self-soothe … small talk. Yep. An article in this month’s issue of The Atlantic cited results from a couple of studies that found a correlation between small talk and a sense of greater wellbeing and connectedness to others. The implication? Striking up a conversation with a fellow commuter on the train ride to work or making small talk with the person bagging your groceries can be another effective way to self-soothe.

Got some other suggestions not on this list? Send them along! We love hearing from you.