10 Ways to Manage Stress without Drugs or Alcohol
Effective stress management is central to lasting freedom from substance abuse, but many don’t know where or how to begin in managing stress without drugs or alcohol. Discover 10 invaluable tips for coping with workplace and other stress:
There is a clear connection between work-related and other forms of stress and substance abuse, according to a large body of research. Addiction experts now know that most substance use disorders (SUDs) first develop as a way of coping with physical, mental and emotional stress (which can be triggered by chronic, daily stressors, like a hairy daily commute, or an acute stressor like a traumatic event). Stress, in the words of one study, is “a well-known risk factor in the development of addiction and in addiction relapse vulnerability.”
Effective stress management skills are thus crucial to finding lasting freedom from drugs and/or alcohol—and an important focus during the treatment experience at Beach House Center for Recovery. But for many in recovery, the very notion of “self-soothing” in times of stress without the help of drugs or alcohol can be daunting and can seem like a foreign, counter-intuitive concept.
For that reason, we’ve compiled some tips below on sober stress management strategies that are proven to work.
Here are 10 ways to manage stress more generally, without drugs or alcohol:
- Breathing and Mindfulness Meditation – Your body has its own built-in calming device in the form of your own breath. Any time you start to feel overwhelmed by stress-related anxiety or a sense of overwhelming urgency, you can take a long deep breath in through your nose, and then slowly exhale through your mouth. As you exhale, you can even mentally say to yourself, “Relax.” Even just 2-3 long, deep breaths in and out, with the command, “Relax,” will slow down your heart rate and bring your body (and in particular, your parasympathetic nervous system, which heats up during stress) into a state of greater rest and relaxation. Mindfulness meditation typically pairs this kind of breath work with a visualization exercise or with intentional attentiveness to the present moment. Recent research at Harvard has revealed this form of meditation alleviates mental and emotional stress.
- Regular Cardiovascular Exercise – Getting your body moving is another proven stress buster. 14 percent of Americans rely on exercise as a stress management tool, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Vigorous exercise relieves stress by releasing those stress-triggered endorphins, lifting your mood, and letting your mind, in essence, check out in a quasi-meditative state, according to the Mayo Clinic.
- Reducing Caffeine Intake – Coffee and other caffeinated drinks raise levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, according to research. More cortisol ups the body’s physical stress response, however: the heart rate quickens, breathing becomes shallower and your adrenalin kicks in.
- Eating a Healthy and Well-Balanced Diet – What you put into your body directly impacts how your body responds to stress. But daily diet can also be easy to overlook—especially when you’re under stress. Greasy fast food meals or food that is high in processed sugar reportedly only amplify the physical effects of stress.
- Laughter and Looking for Humor in Daily Life – Research says laughter lowers levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Laughing is also good stress relief for these reasons listed by the Mayo Clinic. Not everyone is born with a raucous funny bone or as an aspiring Jon Stewart. But anyone can make space for more lighthearted comedy in their life and learn to be less serious about everything.
- Spending Time in Nature and in Dirt – Getting out in nature is very restorative, probably because it’s in our DNA: the earliest human ancestors were hunters and foragers, after all, so that link to the natural world runs deep. While it can be hard to break away from the Smartphone, taking a walk through the local park, going for a hike in the mountains or getting one’s hands dirty gardening in the backyard are all ways to re-center and relax. (There’s even now a whole new field called “ecotherapy” or “dirt therapy,” based on research into the therapeutic properties of soil.)
- Taking Occasional Breaks – Stress usually manifests as a sense of mounting and increasingly overwhelming pressure from work or other life circumstances. Short, regular breathers in the day are one way to take time out. So are real vacations. Planning a trip, for example, is evidenced to boost happiness levels.
- Serving and Volunteering – Harvard researchers have found that service and volunteering are good forms of stress reduction. People who volunteer have lower blood pressure, for example.
- Having a Hobby – A hobby is something you enjoy doing: engaging in it is fun and rewarding. Some people play in a band. Others write poetry, paint or run marathons for fun.
- Talking About Your Problems – People who successfully recover from a very stressful event often do so because they have good social support, according to research cited by PsychCentral. Talking with your problems in person with a close, trusted friend, counselor or with a peer support group can bring down stress levels, by helping you reframe a problem in a more positive light, lifting your spirits, and giving you a sense that you are not alone in facing whatever is stressing you out.