Addiction Recovery: Techniques for Staying Sober

All addictions, like all obsessive-compulsive disorders, serve one purpose: To push unpleasant feelings out of your conscious awareness. It makes no difference if you are addicted to alcohol, shopping, pornography, pain killers, pot, food, cocaine, gambling, or anything else, the key to recovery is finding peace. Peace from incessant thoughts urging you to obsessively repeat behaviors that sabotage your joy.

The first step in freeing yourself from addiction is minimizing or stopping the behavior. As hard as it is to believe, that is just the beginning. The real work is staying away from your old ways, which is only possible if underlying issues are acknowledged and addressed. One of the reasons 12 Step programs are so helpful is that once the addictive behavior is under control, their philosophy and practices help prevent relapses.

Whether it is overcoming addiction to perfection, difficulty being assertive, or the challenge of self-compassion, the community of a 12 Step group, with its tradition of sharing even one’s darkest thoughts and unappealing behaviors, can be a great path to recovery. In addition, 12 Step programs give you a whole new circle of people with whom to relate. This is especially helpful if your addiction often involves others whose company can trigger cravings and undesirable behaviors.

While there are many ancient practices that can alleviate anxiety, depression, loneliness, guilt, grief, feelings of worthlessness, and anger, here are three worth using every day. Like a muscle, they build emotional strength and resilience while calming your nervous system. Since the goal of recovery is to treat the underlying issues that catalyze addictive behaviors, not merely to eliminate the behaviors, a multi-pronged approach is best.

Breath work is an easy way to feel some sense of control, as well as a conduit to slowing down and allowing time to make the decision not to engage in your compulsion. Since breathing is already familiar and available every minute of your life, working with it can feel natural from the start. Here, however, you consciously choose to use your breath to harness the power of your parasympathetic nervous system by engaging the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve connects the brain to the pharynx, vocal chords, lungs, heart, stomach, intestines, to different glands that produce enzymes and hormones, influencing digestion, me­tabolism, and more. Its effects on your lungs, heart and the connection to your brain is quite amazing, as it rules both your body and mind. The easiest way to influence your mind and decrease stress is by activating the calming parasympathetic pathways of your nervous system. While it is certainly not second nature to control the parasympathetic nervous system at will, it can be done though breath work. The simple act of holding your breath for a slow count of four and then exhaling to a slow count of four, stimulates the vagus nerve relaxing your body and mind. (See the chapter on breath work for a variety of practices, including the 4-4-4 breath, that will soothe you almost immediately.)

Meditation is another path to inner peace and to gaining a greater sense of control over your thoughts and emotions. The simplest, but not easiest, meditation technique is noticing the qualities of your breath (the temperature, where you feel the air entering and exiting your body, its duration, intensity, etc.) as you inhale and exhale. This is called Vipassana meditation. When thoughts arise, just notice them, accept them, and, if you choose, label them: worrying, imagining, anger, rehearsing, grief, remorse, for example. You can do this lying down, but it is often easier if you are seated in a chair, or in a cross-legged position with a cushion or pillow under your sit bones. Don’t get discouraged if your mind wanders. That’s the nature of mind. Just allow your thoughts to come and go. Trying to control them or achieve a blank slate will only make them more persistent.

You may also love the practice of yoga nidra, an ancient yogic guided meditation that so calms the body and mind it actually creates theta waves in the brain. Yoga nidra translates from the Sanskrit to mean yogic sleep, but you are not asleep. You are in a liminal place between waking and sleep. In deep sleep you experience delta brain waves. In yoga nidra you enjoy alpha and theta brain waves. This is especially useful for people who have had trauma, or suffer from PTSD. (There is a link to a fantastic free hour long yoga nidra practice under the blogroll section of this site: “Elsie’s yoga nidra.” Or, you can download a free copy from iTunes by going to podcasts, to Elsie’s Yoga, to episode #62. The meditation begins after her 15 minute chat with one of her listeners. I also like a Yoga Nidra CD by Swami Janakananda from Amazon. They are quite different and beneficial in their own unique ways. The free Insight Timer app also has a wide variety of Yoga Nidra practices. Two of my favorites are by Julie Murphy and Patty Hlava.)

The third skill you may want to add to your repertoire of healing strategies is compassionate inquiry. By delving into whatever is disturbing you, you can calm your thoughts and nervous system, while cultivating greater lovingkindness towards yourself and others. Exploring your thoughts with compassion is not the same thing as ruminating or worrying, which are simply different ways of obsessing and creating stress. Try this, start with any uncomfortable thought or emotion by going into your body and, like Sherlock Holmes, sleuthing out what you are feeling physically. Is there tightness, contraction, tingling, numbness, pain, heat, cold, spasms, or anything else you can notice? Gently breathe into that spot. No, you can’t literally breathe into it, but by directing your attention to that area it will soften, relax, and the blood flow will increase. Now, breathe slowly into your diaphragm. As you feel your body relax, ask yourself what you might have been thinking and feeling to create that physical condition. Remember, there is no judging, just compassionate inquiry. Allow and accept whatever comes up with the kindness you might show a child. If you hear a harsh, critical voice, ask it to gently step aside. By allowing and accepting your deepest thoughts and feelings, your mind feels heard and steps off the carousel of incessant inner scrutiny and speculation, letting the flow of unpleasant emotions ebb.

Some days one technique will suffice, and other days you may need all three. By practicing, especially during less challenging times, you build up inner resources that will naturally appear when life is more demanding.

Copyright Nicole S. Urdang

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Nicole Urdang

Nicole S. Urdang, M.S., NCC, DHM is a Holistic Psychotherapist in Buffalo, NY. She holds a New York state license in mental health counseling and a doctorate in homeopathic medicine from the British Institute of Homeopathy.