A big challenge in early sobriety is learning how to become comfortable with discomfort. The misconception is that if it’s not comfortable, there must be something wrong—but this is not always the case. Life will not always go according to plan, and people will not act in accordance with expectations. Sober individuals need to find and incorporate ways to cope with these frustrations. In order to combat the “genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors” of alcoholism, adjusting to sober life means learning how to deal with cravings, managing thoughts and behaviors, and developing healthy social skills and support.
Managing Thoughts and Behavior
Behavior is about moving toward or away from a goal, so it’s important to set goals that are in line with achieving and maintaining sobriety. Instead of simply setting the abstract goal of achieving sobriety or abstinence, a better plan for success is to create concrete behaviors to practice regularly.
Setting Goals and Creating Concrete Behaviors
Abstinence is a goal that can be broken down into a set of recurring behaviors. One example of a concrete behavior is to attend 12-step meetings daily or on a regular basis. Another behavior is to introduce oneself to the speaker or chairperson after a meeting. Getting a new phone number at each meeting and calling someone from a meeting on a daily basis is also a simple and effective way to create and practice sober behaviors. Involvement in service positions (even as a greeter) at a meeting will increase accountability as well as begin the ritual of regular meeting attendance.
Here is a sample list of concrete behaviors that work toward the goal of sobriety:
- Not drinking
- Attending a 12-step meeting
- Introducing yourself to the speaker or chairperson after a meeting
- Calling another sober individual
- Sharing honestly about thoughts, fears and frustrations
- Engaging in a sober activity like working out
Success in sober life is determined by the amount of attention, focus and energy placed on achieving and maintaining sobriety. In simple terms, you get out what you put in. This does not mean sobriety is a single action or destination. In order to keep the primary focus on sobriety, sober individuals need to learn how to continuously reprioritize. Even negative emotions can be repurposed and used as motivation for making changes and shifting priorities. For example, if a particular job or relationship causes increased stress or challenges, then it can open up an opportunity for more meetings and support.
Upping Your Social Game
Alcohol is commonly referred to as a social lubricant, and for good reason. Alcohol often lessens inhibitions and the anxiety and self-consciousness that accompany social interaction. In lieu of alcohol, sober individuals must create and develop new methods for social interaction while also finding new ways to deal with the existing stressors.
According to a socialization program developed for chronic alcoholics, adding and practicing social skills promotes better behavior and longer-term sobriety. Basically, doing the same old things with the same old people gives you the same old results. In order to change the outcome of your behavior from taking a drink to staying sober, behaviors must change. If your drinking story was one of isolation, then sobriety will mean getting connected with other sober individuals. Likewise, if you are someone who relied on the bar as a primary source of connection and distraction, then it will be essential to find new places where drinking is not the primary source of entertainment or relating.
Social Skills and Support
Social skills develop through practice. Twelve-step meetings are easy places to begin practicing how to talk to other people, especially in early sobriety. As a rule, getting to meetings early and staying late create the most possibility for interaction. By getting to a meeting early, you foster opportunities to help set up a meeting in simple ways, like putting out chairs. By staying late, you can take advantage of fellowship opportunities after meetings to go for dinner or coffee and talk about the sober experience and regular life. Engaging in non-drinking group activities outside of meetings such as team sports and other physical activities can be another source of positive social interaction. Examples of physical group activities are dance classes, cross fit, yoga, hiking and rock climbing. Some 12-step groups even host social events and opportunities like cruises, sober dances, camping trips and much more. Eventually, your sober friends just become your friends, and it is way less effort to reach out when you are overwhelmed by positive or negative experiences in your life.
Dealing with Cravings
“Craving functions as a method of protection from distress by alerting the individual to a potential source of relief.” By definition, cravings are not essentially bad but are, rather, signs to get your attention that something is going on that you need to address. An action plan to deal with cravings as they arise is necessary.
Retraining yourself to tolerate discomfort and understand the temporary nature of a craving can go a long way. Simply switching attention to something non-destructive is an indispensable technique for moving through a craving without giving into it and picking up a drink. As discussed, support systems such as 12-step meetings and fellowship are other ways to relieve cravings, through sharing, listening and just hanging out. Discovery and pursuit of activities and interests that can provide alternative ways to find relief is also essential for long-term sobriety. Healthy interests are endless: they can include things like running, working out, sports, painting, writing, playing an instrument, dancing, bowling, karaoke and much more.
No matter what you choose, practice equals progress, and the more practice you get moving through a craving or a challenging situation without drinking, the more confidence you’ll have staying sober the next time.