Sometimes unwanted thoughts simply will not go away and we spend a lot of time and energy focused on the wrong things. Thought stopping is a simple, but effective tool for getting rid of those unwanted and unnecessary thoughts.
Thought stopping can be applied to a wide variety of unwanted thoughts, and is particularly helpful as a tool for those in sober recovery or rehab. Any bothersome thought, including anxious thoughts, depressive thoughts, memories of addiction behaviors, thoughts of using drugs or alcohol again, and memories of trauma or abuse, can be addressed through thought stopping. Thought stopping develops the mental discipline needed to consciously take control over an unwanted, unconscious behavior.
Getting Started on Thought Stopping
The first step in thought stopping is to tell yourself, “Stop!” If you are alone, this means shouting, “Stop!” as loud as you can. If not alone, say it to yourself silently. For some, this is enough to break the cycle of unwanted thoughts and move forward. For others, the statement needs to be combined with another type of reinforcement. Perhaps the most famous method is to snap a rubber band kept on one’s wrist. Other, less painful methods include visualizing a stop sign, snapping your fingers, tapping on a table, brief bouts of physical exercise to distract you, or literally turning in the opposite direction.
Being clear on what one does not want to think about often is not enough. The unhelpful or negative thought needs to be replaced with a helpful or positive thought, even if the new thought does not have any relationship to the negative thought. To accomplish this, one can visualize a special place, embrace an accurate, logical thought about the situation, or engage in a task that requires concentration and focus.
Real Life Application of Thought Stopping
Sometimes thought stopping is criticized for being an overly simplistic response to complex emotional problems. While this may be a fair criticism, those who are successful at using thought stopping as a coping skill frequently incorporate several types of thought stopping techniques for each unwanted thought. The skill is easy to learn, but using the skill may require practice. Consider the following real life examples.
Mark has been invited to a restaurant he frequented during the height of his alcohol use. He has not been back since he became sober. As he and his friends are ordering, friends begin to order alcohol and Mark experiences unhelpful thoughts arising in his mind. The margaritas here are great. If I only get one I’ll be okay. Everyone else is drinking. Mark recognizes that these are addiction thoughts, and begins the thought stopping process by saying “Stop!” silently to himself because he is with others. He reinforces this by closing his eyes and picturing a stop sign. He replaces the thoughts of alcohol by saying to himself, My sobriety is important to me. I don’t need any poison today. To get his mind focused on something else, he asks the server to make a recommendation for an appetizer.
Diane works in a stressful environment with many deadlines and an incompetent boss. One afternoon her boss begins complaining about problems with her work performance, most of which relate to things she did not do. Diane attempts to return to work, but cannot get anything done because she keeps thinking, My boss is so incompetent. I don’t get why they don’t fire him. As the thought repeats in her mind, she becomes angrier. She shuts the door to her office and says, “Stop!” as loud as she can without attracting attention. She does three jumping jacks and starts to smile as she is beginning to feel silly. Okay, Diane, she says to herself, You have three projects due today. Focus on those. Diane gets to work on her projects.
Mark and Diane demonstrate how effective thought stopping can have multiple steps. If either had merely said, “Stop!” to themselves, there is a high likelihood the unwanted thoughts would have quickly returned. Each of them used thought replacement and an activity to fill their mind with something positive.
Myths that Interfere with Thought Stopping
For thought stopping to be an effective coping skill, one needs to have confidence that the process will work. The following myths and inaccurate assumptions are common hindrances to effective thought stopping:
- I can think negative thoughts or unhelpful thoughts as long as I don’t act on them
- No one will ever know if I just think about it
- I deserve the joy of thinking about my old habit or addiction
- Thought stopping isn’t really possible–you really can’t control your thoughts
- This is psychobabble
- I can maintain my sobriety even if I don’t do practice thought stopping
Each of these myths can turn into an excuse for dwelling on an unwanted thought, which is unnecessary and self-defeating.
With practice, thought stopping can become a part of daily life. As one consistently replaces unhelpful thoughts with helpful thoughts, the new helpful thoughts become more automatic. Thought stopping can be an effective tool during particularly stressful periods of life, such as the holidays, when there may be more frequent triggers for negative thoughts or relapse into addictive behaviors.
Cyndy Adeniyi is a counselor and founder of Out of the Woods Life Coaching. She enjoys hiking, Zumba, and flea markets in her spare time. She lives with her husband and two children in Maryland.
For as long as I can remember becoming a physician was my goal. My father was a physician and the medical world was familiar to me. We lived in a small town, and I saw the admiration and respect that was bestowed upon my father. My siblings and I always had everything we needed from a financial standpoint. Our job growing up was to work extremely hard at our studies. It was an expectation that we would be successful in our professional lives, and I think for all of us success was equated with money. We felt a lot of pressure, and it’s not surprising that we all started using alcohol in high school to “let off steam.”
The Drive to Succeed Can Exert Pressure
I internalized that drive for financial success and combined it with my desire to work in a helping profession. I earned a medical degree. During all those years of education, I refused to acknowledge the voice inside my head that kept telling me this was not the path to my happiness. Drinking alcohol in college had always helped to quiet that voice. I never truly felt at peace with my career decisions. My desire to project a certain image as a medical professional conflicted with what I was feeling deep inside.
I kept telling myself it would get better with time. I thought that with experience I would gain confidence and, with confidence, I would attain peace. I gained confidence and I gained experience and I made sure I knew exactly what I was doing. I earned a solid reputation among my colleagues and patients for being thorough and competent, but that nagging voice never left. I just couldn’t find peace. I pushed that concern away and thought as long as I was good at what I did and made enough money to buy what I wanted, I would achieve happiness. I had to. I had already come so far, I felt that I couldn’t quit now.
Trying to Buy Happiness
The first paycheck I received when I went into medical practice was so exciting. It was such a reward for over a decade of hard work. I loved taking care of my patients and getting to know them and their families, but I was incredibly stressed all of the time. I had a great responsibility, and I criticized and blamed myself any time a patient became unexpectedly ill or progressively sicker. What was I doing wrong? Had I missed something? How could I have prevented that patient’s problem? These were all valid questions that deserved consideration, but I took it to the extreme and ruminated over these issues all of the time.
A Noisy Mind Can Lead to Greater Stress
My brain never shut off. I was constantly thinking about the same stressful job-related issues over and over and over, and never coming up with a different answer. I was unrealistic with my expectations, and I was making myself sicker and sicker with stress. I was exhausting myself. I would go on these binge shopping trips on the weekends and spend hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars at a time. I would buy, buy, buy. I would fill the void I felt inside with stuff, and then go home and have a drink. Alcohol was my friend and my comfort. It was the only way my brain ever let go of stress and truly relaxed. Otherwise, I was in a constant state of turmoil, unease, and unrest. I had been this way my entire life. This had always been my “normal.”
I had by that time bought a nice home on the water, I drove a luxury car, had two boats, and wore all of the latest fashions. I was who I thought I was supposed to be. I had achieved the financial success that enabled me to have all of those things–all the things I thought made for a great life. What could possibly be wrong? Why did I feel so empty?
There Has to Be More to Life
I lived that way for a long time. I remember saying to myself a few years after graduating from medical school, “This is it? There has to be more to life than this.” It felt like such a letdown from a personal perspective. I loved my patients and I would have done anything for them. I cried with them. I laughed with them. I watched them grow older. I talked about their families. I sympathized when jobs were lost, when kids graduated and moved away, when family members passed. I learned about their drinking problems. I loved that part of medicine. I loved being trusted and being let into their lives. I hated when they got sick.
Eventually, I left clinical practice and took an administrative role. I thought I would feel better emotionally without having that stress of direct patient care. I also put myself into a position where I could justify drinking and using regularly. No patient care. No weekends. No “on call” responsibilities. No prescriptions to write. I became a nine-to-five budget and policy person. I also no longer had a leash on the monster inside. I quickly became a daily drinker. I functioned that way for many years. I felt even emptier inside once I did not have patients to care for, but I quickly filled that void by using.
Achieving Serenity in Sobriety
Inevitably, I crashed and burned. A suicide attempt marked my “hitting bottom” and also the beginning of my recovery. Years of treatment and supervision in a recovery program designed specifically for licensed professionals provided accountability and support to return to the workforce. I routinely met with other addicted physicians, lawyers, therapists, and nurses. I sat next to CEOs of multimillion dollar global companies. I would talk with the high-profile lawyer from the T.V. commercials, police officers, teachers, elected officials, a singer from a famous band, even a lottery winner. Every socioeconomic level was represented in those addiction treatment and sober recovery groups. There were a staggering number of financially successful people sitting in those chairs, and one thing we all had in common was substance abuse. It was there that I learned that college degrees, large bank accounts, and high status won’t ever fill that void inside. All of the money in the world won’t keep someone sober. We cannot buy serenity.
I thought long and hard over those first few months after I got sober and re-entered the work force. I had learned new coping skills to deal with stress. I had learned how to address the inner demons that led to my using. What I learned in the addiction treatment program and sober recovery groups helped me to make the most important decision I ever made. I chose to retire from medicine. I finally had the courage to pursue the unknown. I had the courage to choose my happiness.
Achieving serenity for me meant making life-changing decisions. I had spent the majority of my life fooling myself into thinking it was the things on the outside that mattered. I had all of that and I still attempted suicide. I had all of that and was still so unhappy and so miserable with my life that I didn’t want to continue living it. While I was in treatment I had episodes of feeling happy–truly happy. It was an amazing feeling. I knew without a doubt that I had never really felt that before. I knew that was the goal I wanted to achieve.
I sold the house, the cars, and the boats, and used some of my retirement money to make ends meet. I met and married a wonderful man who wanted me and not my salary. We live together in an average-sized home in an average neighborhood. I drive a late model SUV. We have a mortgage and credit card bills. I wear jeans and flip-flops. I have achieved more than I ever could have imagined. I am happy. I have serenity.
E. Sparks is a recovering alcoholic and addict. She is a wife, mother, and dog lover. She has a medical degree and recently retired from medical practice to focus on her passion for working with abandoned and abused dogs. She is an aspiring writer and hopes by sharing her knowledge and experience that she may help others who struggle with addiction.
I have so many negative qualities that were much less apparent when I wasn’t sober.
Taking the road to recovery has its hardships and regaining your self-esteem after addiction is definitely an obstacle that only gets better with time. It’s often easier to blame ourselves for our mistakes than it is to see how far we’ve come and the strides we’ve made in our sober recovery. Recovering addicts are working daily on trying to become better people. Even with a strong support system, some days it is difficult to see the positive qualities in ourselves, but here are some friendly reminders that can help you get through each day.
If, like me, you are a recovering addict, remember to:
Be Grateful. Gratitude is something we can be stingy about. I remind myself to be grateful, even when I have to put back a shirt I thought I had enough money to buy, but didn’t. Being thankful is something that I never get tired of. It makes me feel better as a person. I also feel better when I remind others how important gratitude is. Remembering to be grateful is a wonderful habit to embrace.
Be helpful to others. I may not be a doctor, but I often find myself answering questions for concerned friends about what particular medicines may impair them or what the mystery pill at the bottom of the drawer is and if it should be thrown away. I’m often asked approximation prices of pawn shop items, which stores offer ‘no receipt returns,’ and where you’ll get the best payout for your gold. These may seem like unusual ways to be helpful, but the joy of being able to help someone with what I once thought was useless knowledge is quite heart-warming.
Keep in mind how far you have come in your recovery, and never forget what hitting bottom feels like. I hear so many inappropriate comments about bums on the street or people who die from overdoses. As much as I am grateful I am alive and no longer on the street, I never forget that all of that is just one relapse away. I’m not saying I hand out a dollar to every person who asks for one, but I do my best to give back as much as possible. I continue to pray for the sick and suffering and always lend an ear to anyone who asks for help or needs a friend. I do not put myself in situations where I am hanging out with old friends, but I offer my guidance if they want to make the conscious choice to get sober.
Give and receive love. Although it does take a long time to regain self-esteem or learn how to forgive and love ourselves again, once we do, it is such a relief, because we then allow ourselves to love others. Once this stage is reached, loving others just comes easy, and there is so much love to give. I feel like we can never spread enough love to others, even if it just a smile to a passerby or continuous support and loyalty to our loved ones. I wouldn’t trade the ability to give and receive love for anything in the world.
Be humble and judge not, lest ye be judged. If I find myself judging someone based solely on a small piece of information or none at all, I quickly catch myself and apologize to that person–usually only in my head–over and over. It didn’t take long for me to learn that humbling myself would not only help me become a better person, but feel better all around. Being humble and non-judgmental may not be a quality that is clearly visible to others, but it feels good looking for the best in others rather than misjudging someone based on little knowledge of their story.
These habitual, daily reminders certainly aren’t the only positive actions we can take to stay on the right path through addiction recovery, but they are ones that are easy to do on a regular basis. These actions can be a wonderful way to start learning how to love yourself again and enhance your recovery process, without riding too high on that pink cloud. I enjoy practicing these daily “sober recovery reminders” because I think they are tools that help me to be a better person. Learning to use these tools on a daily basis is one of the perks of being a recovering addict.
Cassandra Huerta is a freelance writer who lives in an extremely small Michigan town and lives life one day at a time. She enjoys regularly entertaining her six-month-old daughter and can thank her wonderful fiance and coffee for all of her work.
Hindsight is a powerful thing. In fact, I would even say that hindsight for me is a powerful tool. When I look back to a time in my life when my biggest fears revolved around my weight, how I viewed myself and how others viewed me, I realize that what I was reacting to was more of a symptom of a problem than the actual problem. The actual problem reared its very ugly head years later when I found myself in the throes of alcohol addiction. Could it be possible that after years of struggling with my weight, conquering that issue with the help of weight loss surgery and developing a healthy lifestyle, I had simply transferred my addiction from food (as my elixir to soothe my pain) to alcohol? Had I won the battle only to uncover the true war?
How My Addictive Behavior Started
Looking back, I can see clearly that my problems with addictive behavior didn’t happen overnight. The things I worried about as a teenager–fitting in, making friends, not standing out in the wrong ways–were the same issues that plagued me as a young adult–getting the right job, finding the right mate, hanging out at the cool places and being seen with the “in” crowd. The perfectionist within me wanted to get every single thing right. In fact not just right, but perfect. And when that didn’t happen–say, when something was out of my control and didn’t go my way — I began self-medicating. In it’s earliest stages, my self-medication was food. I would eat anything and everything, and I gained a lot of weight. I sometimes blamed my food and weight issues on the fact that I was always told as a child “clean your plate” and basically learned to eat anything and like it, but that was just an excuse.
My Real Issues Hit Me Like a Ton of Bricks
By now you’re probably wondering, “Why all of this talk about childhood and weight issues? I thought this was supposed to be about addiction?” Well buckle up, here it comes. After taking matters into my own hands in my early 20s (it was that need to be in control thing again), I had weight loss surgery, lost more than 150 pounds and became the “beautiful on the outside to match the beautiful on the inside” young, vibrant, career professional that I knew I could be. And then I lived happily ever after, right? Not so much.
That was when it hit me. That was when I realized my life had changed forever. Not because of my weight loss, but because it was now physically impossible for me to self-medicate with food. If you know anything about gastric bypass weight loss surgery, you know that the surgically-treated stomach is reduced to roughly the size of an egg. Continuing to soothe my emotional needs with food was out of the question. But liquids…liquids might work. The doctor had said that liquids would go straight through. He had been cautioning me about the pitfalls of drinking high-calorie drinks and not feeling full, inhibiting weight loss. Little did he know that this basic principle about liquids after gastric bypass surgery would become the catalyst for my addiction transference. Drinking my sorrows away–the sorrows that were now a lot closer to the surface because I could no longer blame them on my being the fat girl–became my new addictive behavior. I became an alcoholic.
I needn’t describe the downward spiral I experienced at that point in my life. You’re welcome to use your imagination on that. Suffice it to say, every moment of comfort the alcohol provided—and there were MANY moments—was followed by weeks of fear and dread about how to fix what I might have broken (yes, blackouts were a regular occurrence that created a whole new layer of anxiety. To say that I wasn’t always crystal clear is an understatement).
Coping Tools. Don’t Leave Home Without Them
What I have learned in hindsight from this experience is that I needed tools. Tools to help me cope with my own overly-controlling and addictive behaviors and tendencies. Not the tendency to want to fit in or to excel and have friends. Rather, the tendency to need to control my entire environment. Time and life have taught me to change what I can and simply control my own reactions and expectations around everything else. For me, it is now about progress, not perfection. I’m learning to use mindfulness as a daily practice along the way. Looking in the mirror and asking myself why I am behaving the way I am is the first step. I have much gratitude for the professionals and friends who have given me the insight and space to be able to both recognize and work on this, and I’m grateful they are there to pick me up when I fall down–which happens a lot.
Brooke Lyn Harper has been a senior leader in the healthcare industry for over 15 years, specializing in healthcare compliance and privacy. Having overcome the life challenges of addiction and mental illness, her desire is to “pay it forward” by sharing her own experiences and expertise in hopes of touching others in an informative and engaging way.
Life is stressful, and everyone needs something to help them decompress. While some people manage to find healthy ways of relaxing, everyone is tempted by vices: junk food, reality TV, video games, alcohol, tobacco, marijuana…you know, outlets which offer immediate gratification and don’t require any real physical or mental exertion. Everyone gives in to vices from time to time, but some indulgences are much riskier than others.
No One Starts with the Intention of Forming a Habit
People use drugs and alcohol to relax. They use them to diminish their inhibitions so they can socialize with people more easily. They use them to unwind after a stressful day at work. In other words, drugs and alcohol become a coping mechanism for many people. For most people, the inclination to use drugs and alcohol stems less from a desire to cause pain than a desire to reduce pain. The problem though, is that this form of “self-medication” commonly begets addiction–the coping mechanism becomes an even greater problem unto itself.
The True Cost of Addiction
Chronic use of any drug will deplete you financially, impair your ability to make decisions, damage your health, and color your perception of reality. Becoming addicted to something means that you no longer use to get high–you use to sustain a consistent low. What was once a source of joy and a vehicle for escape becomes part of a boring, expensive, and generally destructive pattern of abuse.
As you develop a higher tolerance, or a chemical dependency, it becomes increasingly difficult to achieve the sort of buzz which got you hooked in the first place–which is the ultimate irony with drugs and alcohol. Certain substances will have you forever pursuing an idealized high which you may never truly experience again.
Finding Healthier Alternatives
There are other, more sustainable coping mechanisms and lifestyle choices that you might consider trying. What makes the healthier choices less desirable for some people, however, is that they won’t provide you with gratification without requiring you to put forth a little effort. Lighting up a joint and going for a jog are measurably different activities. But, just as drug and alcohol abuse commonly damages your self-perception, you might find that the activities which challenge you will likely enhance your feelings of self-worth. And, ideally speaking, you might find that building up your confidence and self-respect decreases your desire to consume drugs and alcohol.
Devising a consistent fitness regimen is one potential solution. Vigorous physical activity causes your body to release endorphins which provide you with their own unique–and completely natural–euphoria. What’s more, regular exercise lowers your blood pressure, increases your confidence, and has been found to generally decrease anxiety and depression over time.
Some people adapt a personal artistic practice. There are many creative activities which can bolster one’s sense of self-worth, and provide a constructive outlet for otherwise destructive emotional tendencies. There are many activities you might consider picking up: sewing, baking, drawing, creative writing, dance, or even playing a musical instrument.
You might also try bubble baths, reading classic literature, listening to records…there are many, many healthy ways of decreasing stress. One danger to be aware of, however, is when a healthy habit turns into an addiction itself.
Put One Foot in Front of the Other
The first and most crucial step towards overcoming your addiction is recognizing that you have a problem. Self-deception and inadequate excuses only further perpetuate the cycle of abuse. Take a good, long, honest look at your life. Determine what your sources of happiness are, and maximize them. Determine what your sources of unhappiness are, and minimize their presence in your life as best as you can.
Brandon Engel is a Chicago-based author who writes about a variety of topics — everything from vintage horror films to energy legislation to drugs. Drugs are of particular interest to Brandon, partially because of the politics surrounding them and partially also because he has experimented with them and has struggled with certain substances in the past–particularly with alcohol. Brandon is sober now and eager to help others overcome their addictions.
As active addicts, we were sick pups–spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically. Many times, we don’t give the physical aspect of our addiction recovery enough attention. Addiction treatment centers, recovery programs, counseling groups all help addicts with the spiritual, mental and emotional aspects of recovery. For physical recovery–eating well, sleeping enough, and exercising regularly–the responsibility lies directly on the recovering addict or recovering alcoholic.
In Recovery: Eat Well, Get Adequate Sleep and Exercise
Physical recovery includes things as basic as getting enough sleep and eating the right foods. If we are not sleeping well, we are not going to feel well. Likewise, if the food we eat isn’t healthy or makes us feel low energy and sick, it is going to affect how we feel mentally, emotionally and spiritually. For example, junk food makes us feel sluggish, and sugar binges result in depression. We need to take better care of ourselves by eating nourishing food and avoiding those binges. Many recovering addicts run the risk of switching addictions from drugs or alcohol to food. Our relationship to food needs to be healthy, and while in recovery we need to eat well for optimal health.
Although there is much more that can be said about eating well and getting good sleep, the aspect of sober recovery I wish to focus on in this article is physical movement. We alcoholics and addicts, especially while in early recovery, are prone to anxiety—anxiety that makes us think of ways to escape it. If we have made a decision that alcohol and drugs are no longer options for us, then we need to find a better way to relieve our stresses and anxieties. The best way to relieve the physical symptoms of stress and anxiety is through movement and physical exercise.
Get Moving to Feel Better in Recovery
It really does not matter how you move, as long as you move. For some people, that may mean walking or running several times a week. If you can get outside for your exercise, all the better. There is nothing like fresh air and the outdoors to relax and rejuvenate you.
Maybe your thing is working out at the gym while listening to your favorite tunes on a portable music player. Maybe you get more energized by group classes, or maybe you played a sport at one time and you want to pick it up again. Whichever form of exercise you prefer, just get moving!
Make Physical Fitness Fun
When we were kids, we ran around outside and just called it “playing.” As grown-ups, we call it a “workout” and that makes it sound so much less fun! We don’t need to strive to be professional athletes. We don’t even need to be good at it! We just need to get moving and have fun doing it.
Personally, if I am not having fun while exercising, then I am not going to stick with it. In my search for enjoyable ways to stay physical, I have done a lot of different types of movement over the years, including Taekwondo, yoga, rollerblading, soccer, running, walking, and swimming. You might explore some of these fitness options, and also explore skiing, snowboarding, skateboarding, playing baseball or basketball…Well, you get the idea.
Join a Sober League or Team
If a yoga class or jogging routine are not for you, there are sober leagues, and sober teams playing in leagues. Ask around, and you are sure to find others in sober recovery who want to form a sports team. It happens all the time, and this can be one of the best ways to get motivated to exercise and to get support for staying sober as well.
Enjoy the Benefits of Physical Fitness
No matter what you choose to do, if you stick with a physical activity that you enjoy, you will find other aspects of recovery, and life, much more satisfactory.P. G. McGraw is a 30+ year sober alcoholic, writer, blogger and “joyfully rebellious heretic and mystic.” She enjoys learning about Eastern and Indigenous Religions and applying that knowledge to her spiritual recovery. A former attorney, McGraw has a certificate as a chemical dependency counselor assistant and has worked as a sponsor, helping many people in the recovery process over the years.
Absorption of alcohol into the body begins in the stomach lining, where it is assimilated into the body of the drinker. However, on its way there, it passes through the mouth, down the throat and the esophagus.
Alcohol Poses a Danger to Your Body
Because of alcohol’s caustic effect on the lining of the stomach and throat, several things can occur during this short passage into the body. The stomach produces acid to help digest food and beverages. If there is no food in the stomach, alcohol may cause the acid to back up into the throat and esophagus, causing acid reflux. This condition can erode the esophagus over time, a not uncommon condition seen among those who drink–even those who drink moderately. This can then cause bleeding of the esophagus. Another factor that can cause damage to the esophagus occurs when a drinker vomits from consumption of alcohol. These alcohol-related issues with the throat and stomach can pose a serious health threat.
Again, a drinker’s stomach is in danger. Another negative effect of alcohol consumption and a risk for the drinker is to get a hole in the lining of the stomach. This is known as an ulcer, and many drinkers develop ulcers from the excess stomach acid combined with excess alcohol, which can become a toxic mix. Drinkers, even those with moderate habits, develop bleeding ulcers. Over time, this creates an inability for drinkers to digest any foods properly. The condition is painful, as well, and may lead to hemorrhaging of the stomach, esophagus or throat; which can sometimes be fatal.
Your Brain and Alcohol
Without the complex mechanisms of the brain operating fully, no one can function. Alcohol use, even a single drink, can impair brain function. Some of this damage is reparable, but not completely. Any drinking damages the brain by altering the signals and messaging taking place there. These changes can alter mood, behavior and the physical responses of the human body. Over time and with heavy alcohol use, the damage can be devastating and permanent.
Your Heart and Alcohol
The heart is heavily impacted by alcohol use; even moderate drinkers have developed heart disease. While some medical practitioners may tout the benefits of drinking a glass of wine or two daily, the risk for some people is too great, and outweighs the benefits. Knowing if your heart is in danger from alcohol is not always possible, so it is often best to assume the benefits are easily outweighed by the dangers. High blood pressure is the most common health risk resulting from alcohol, and may occur with even a single episode of heavy drinking.
Your Pancreas and Alcohol
The pancreas may become toxic with alcohol assimilation. This means that it begins to create poison out of the alcohol in the system of the drinker. The condition created is called pancreatitis and can lead to numerous health risks that include diabetes, problems with blood sugar levels and ongoing digestive problems.
Cancers of the throat, liver, mouth and esophagus may take place in drinkers. Damage to the immune system that occurs with alcohol consumption may increase risks for cancers of these and other types.
Kelly McClanahan has an MSW in clinical social work and a CATC IV in addictions counseling. She teaches meditation and mindfulness, specializing in addiction and trauma. She also leads workshops and seminars on treatment of addictive disorders and stress reduction.
Daily exercise is an integral part of the recovery process and most rehab programs for a reason. Exercise contributes to the physical, emotional, and mental well-being of everyone, whether or not we are addicts. Exercise has been shown to enhance mood and fight depression naturally through the release of endorphins.
Endorphins can lower your perception of pain, improve self-esteem, and even act as a mild sedative. Incorporating regular physical activity into your life can reduce your stress and anxiety, increase your energy, and boost your sleep quality. Additionally, regular exercise can improve your heart health, blood pressure, bone strength, and muscle tone, as well as many other facets of your physical health.
Yoga offers all of the benefits of regular exercise and more to those who use it as part of their recovery process. The meditative quality of yoga encourages practitioners to examine their thought processes and learn to concentrate on posture and breathing with intention. If negative thoughts are dominating your mental space, especially during recovery, yoga will teach you to acknowledge those thoughts, and explore their source. If you have a self-defeating attitude outside of the yoga studio, yoga will shine a light on that attitude and force you to push yourself beyond your own boundaries and strengthen your willpower.
Here are three ways yoga can benefit your recovery:
1. Coping Mechanisms
An inability to cope with the everyday difficulties and the fluctuations of life is one of the underlying causes of addiction. Addicts who are in recovery often struggle with finding new and healthy ways of dealing with life stresses once they can no longer turn to a substance as a solution. Through reflective thought, controlled breathing, and mindful meditation, yoga intrinsically teaches the art of coping in healthy, appropriate ways. These new coping mechanisms are particularly useful for addicts and help to strengthen the recovery process.
Improved self-discipline not only helps an addict to begin the recovery process, but it can also help an addict to stay on course and prevent a relapse. An important part of drug treatment is learning to greet a negative impulse with a positive action. When those in recovery learn to turn to yoga when they feel weak, the self-discipline skills required to overcome addiction are reinforced and enhanced.
3. Supportive Community
The culture of yoga is largely community-based. For a recovering addict, finding a supportive community is one of the keys to success in sobriety. Becoming a regular at a yoga studio will help introduce you to a new source of community that is generally health-minded and supportive of newcomers.
In addition to these benefits that yoga lends to those in recovery, yoga is considered by many to be a good source of spiritual guidance. These days, at least in most yoga studios in the U.S., yoga isn’t about a specific religion, but is a practice that helps us all live in the present moment. It helps us explore the depths of our mental and physical capabilities. This spiritual element of yoga is an added bonus for addicts who feel their addiction is rooted in a misguided way of life or lack of spirituality.
Elizabeth Seward has written about health and wellness for Discovery Health, National Geographic, How Stuff Works Health, and many other online and print publications. As a former touring rock musician, Elizabeth has firsthand experience with the struggles of substance abuse and the loss of loved ones because of it. She believes in the restorative power of yoga, meditation, talk therapy, and plant-based diets and she is an advocate for progressive drug policy reform.
Dogs in the Betty Ford Center. Horses at Hazelden. Wolfdogs and young addicts in L.A. The use of animal-assisted therapy is increasingly used in addiction recovery, as well as many other fields.
So how does it work? The point is not that the animal is supposed to replace a human relationship, according to Phil Tedeschi, founder and director of the Institute for Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Denver. Animal-assisted therapy instead aims to be a bridge back to healthy relationships with other humans.
As anyone in addiction recovery knows, trust issues are the norm. Most addicts have burned others and been burned by others. After this has happened, it becomes difficult to rely on your instincts about who to trust. Animals lack the emotional agendas of humans. You treat the animal well, and it will likely reciprocate. Developing a bond with an animal can open an addict’s heart and help to develop healthy bonds with humans again.
One study done by Seton Addictions Services in Troy, NY, found that patients opened up to addiction counselors more about their personal histories while dogs were present. Counselors gained insights into patients’ emotional and behavioral patterns and could guide them to better interaction choices. For example, when patients were annoyed that a dog didn’t immediately want to bond, the counselor could suggest ways to slow down and gain the dog’s trust.
While dogs are the most common therapy animals – easy to come by, fairly obedient, of a manageable size and easy to take them almost anywhere – many other animals are also used. The famous Hazelden recovery center in Minnesota introduced equine-assisted rehab therapy in 2005. Now some patients participate in an eight-week program that integrates horses with the 12 steps of recovery. The focus is more on interacting with horses on the ground rather than riding them. Several other rehab centers are now using equine therapy and other types of animal-assisted therapy.
Lynn Moore, the addiction counselor who developed Hazelden’s equine program, says that horses mirror human feelings. Patients who have lost all touch with their emotions find that horses can stir up joy, fear, sadness, anger, loneliness, resentment and peace. She recommends equine-assisted therapy for patients who over-intellectualize. Horses, she says, help people get out of their heads and back into their bodies and hearts.
Addicts and Wolfdogs
You could draw a pretty good analogy here: As wolfdogs are to dogs, addicts are to “normal” humans. While genetically similar to their “normal” counterparts in their respective species, wolfdogs and addicts don’t quite fit in. They’re considered dangerous in their societies.
Wolfdogs – hybrids that are too dog-like to survive in the wild but too wolf-like to be adoptable – really get a bum deal. Many are abused, neglected and abandoned. They might be confiscated by authorities, taken to a shelter and euthanized. Young addicts from messed up homes can relate to the difficult path that a wolfdog typically must journey on.
Promises, a West Los Angeles addiction treatment center, teamed up with Wolf Connection, which rescues wolfdogs. Now wolf therapy is part of Promises’ treatment for young adults. While the young addicts help save the wolfdogs from death, the wolfdogs teach their human caregivers wolf principles. These include teamwork, respect, setting and maintaining boundaries, forgiveness, trust and acceptance.
In 2012, more than half of the U.S. incarcerated population was doing time for drug charges. Prison dog training programs are not aimed solely at recovering addicts, but this type of animal intervention is important for many folks who are beginning recovery behind bars.
Prison dog training programs have popped up around the U.S. in recent years. Often the dogs themselves are on death row – about to be euthanized by local animal shelters – when they’re rescued and distributed to inmates. Prisoners see themselves in the dogs, according to Tedeschi, who works closely with prisoners in the program at Colorado Prison. As prisoners rehabilitate the unwanted pets, they begin to rehabilitate themselves. Usually the prisoners train the puppies until they’re between one and two years old, then hand them off to Tedeschi’s grad students in the School of Social Work for further training as therapy dogs. Both prisoners and dogs thrive under this system. The men and women in the training program are the most successful inmates upon release, Tedeschi says.
Someone Who Cares
Most addicts have alienated at least some of their friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances by the time they hit bottom. Addicts can feel disgusting, dehumanized and thoroughly unlovable. But animals see people differently than other people do. As long as you treat the animal well, it doesn’t care whether you’re rich or poor, or have scars on your body and soul.
The beauty of animal-assisted therapy is that it’s two-way. The addict needs somebody who cares about him or her. The animal needs someone to care for it. The act of taking care of an animal turns an addict into someone who cares for another living creature.
Teresa Bergen is a Portland, Oregon-based health, fitness and travel writer. She enjoys exploring the human-animal connection in her writing and in her life.
They say that music soothes the savage breast. That phrase actually comes from a play called “The Mourning Bride,” written by William Congreve in the 1700s. The phrase, while now cliché, still contains a lot of truth: Music has the power to soothe us. Music can also trigger and express powerful emotions like joy and love, as well as anger and fear. Some music makes you feel bad and some music makes you feel good. Hearing emotions expressed in music can help the listener to release feelings or empathize with and connect to others. These are some of the reasons why music is used as therapy to help people recover from physical and mental trauma, and is often used in addiction recovery.
How does music have such a profound effect on us? What is it about music that creates such a strong emotional response? The truth is, scientists don’t know the exact mechanism that gives music such emotional power, but they do have several ideas about how our brains and bodies respond to music.
Music and the Brain
In the documentary The Music Instinct: Science and Song, scientists and musicians collaborate to explore the effects of music on the brain and body. One thing they discovered is that there isn’t one music area of the brain. Music actually affects multiple areas of the brain at once. For example, when listening to a popular composition by Max Richter and Dinah Washington, your brain actually interprets the music in several ways at once, using different parts of your brain. One area of your brain processes the words, another area processes the sound of Dinah’s voice, while another processes the sound of the strings, and another the melody. The brain then takes those individual elements and puts them all together. All these different levels of interpretation happen instantly and simultaneously, so that you don’t even notice how your brain is processing and interpreting the information.
Interestingly, there are those who can’t hear music in the same way, in part because their brains don’t process all the components properly, or they don’t synthesize and reintegrate them properly.
Music and the Body
Music is made up of vibrations of sound waves. Your ears register sound when they pick up the sound waves that flow through the air and vibrate your ear drum. Those same sound waves are also vibrating other parts of your body. You may not realize that sound is vibrating in other parts of your body beyond your ears, because your other organs are not necessarily as sensitive to sound as your eardrums, so you don’t realize what’s happening.
There are people, however, who are more sensitive to sound vibrations and can actually feel sounds resonate in various parts of their body. One example is Dame Evelyn Glennie, the deaf percussionist who was featured in the 2012 London Olympics. She hears by feeling the vibrations of the instruments through her feet and other parts of her body.
The body’s ability to feel sound is probably part of the reason why some people have a tendency to play music very loudly, especially music with heavy bass lines. That effect is especially noticeable in small, enclosed spaces, like your car. Because cars are small spaces surrounded by metal and glass, the vibration of sound within the car may be magnified, and you may experience that vibration more readily throughout your body. Many people enjoy this sensation.
It makes sense if you think about it. Your first experience with sound was in the womb where you were surrounded by liquid, which also amplified the sound in an enclosed environment. The very first sound you probably heard was the deep bass throb of your mother’s heartbeat. So, cranking up the sound on your stereo can be really comforting because it kind of reproduces the experience of the womb.
Music and Emotional Cues
The fact that music affects multiple parts of the brain and the body explains why certain music evokes an emotional response–sometimes a negative emotional response. For example, if you’re watching a scary movie, the music that is used to accompany the action actually does more to make you afraid than if the images ran without music. If you mute the music, you will probably have a very different response to the scene. For examples of this phenomenon, just look at the trailer for The Sound of Music, the trailer for Stephen King’s IT, or the trailers for any of the Harry Potter movies. In all of these, the music provides emotional cues and sets the emotional tone for the stories.
The reason music affects us the way it does is still a mystery, but that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying it. Whether you like samba or soul, hip-hop or hard rock, music truly can soothe the soul.
Music is often used as a therapeutic tool during treatment for addiction, as well as during addiction recovery. Addiction counselors and music therapists may use music to help patients manage their physical, emotional, or cognitive problems. In a music therapy session, a therapist might have the patient listen to certain music, to sing along, or even to dance to it. Therapists in some recovery programs will encourage patients to discuss the lyrics of a song and what the lyrics might mean to them. Music therapists might even ask patients to create music or write music lyrics as a way of expressing their feelings and working through problems.
When used as a supplemental type of therapy during addiction recovery, music can help to reduce the negative emotions and stress levels that an addict encounters as they adjust to being sober. Some recovering addicts find that if they listen to music when they are bored or restless, the music can help distract them from negative thoughts or wanting to use again–music can help redirect thoughts and energies in a more positive and less destructive direction.
People in recovery sometimes encounter depression and anxiety, and in these instances music can help to lighten the mood. A word of caution: be careful to choose the right type of music to help lift the mood and keep things positive. It is best to avoid music that will make a recovering addict reminisce about old times when he or she was using drugs or alcohol. It is also best to avoid music that will trigger unpleasant memories. A music therapist or addiction counselor can discuss your individual needs and unique situation, and help guide you towards the types of music that will have the greatest benefit during your addiction treatment and recovery.