Dealing with Stress

If there is one thing that is difficult for those with addictions to handle, it is stress. One of the primary reasons for drinking or using drugs in the first place is to reduce stress. "Just to take the edge off," "to help me relax," or "to calm me down after a stressful day" are common reasons many give for drinking, drugging or checking out with any addictive behavior.

Stress is a mind or ego construct that tells us that everything about what we are doing, how we are living, or any situation in which we are involved is stressful. How this is created in our brains is by a belief system that insists that everything about our lives is fraught with importance and great magnitude, therefore very stressful. This is very seldom true in the real sense of the world, but our beliefs create that reality in our minds. We go too fast, believing that every moment is incredibly demanding, when we are the ones imposing that value system on the things that we see as important. Most of the time, it is our way to bolster our own self-importance. Very little of what most of us is doing on a day-to-day basis carries anything like the importance that we are likely to give it. In fact, quite the opposite is true. If we were to stop all of our important activity right now, how many people would even notice?

Granted, there are some things that some people do every day that are incredibly stressful, such as police and fire personnel or an air traffic controller. They have highly stressful situations a great deal of the time. They are certainly in life-and-death jobs. Very few of the rest of us are, but we create an air of tension and critical importance that really does not exist. It is important that we view life through a more realistic lens to reduce the amount of stress that we perceive is in our lives.

When our lives are threatened, we are producing several types of signals to our bodies that we may be unaware are happening. The first is the automatic fight or flight response. Our heartbeat increases its rate and we begin to breathe in shallow gasps into our chests. If we can learn nothing else, it would be to control our breathing as we learn about recovery. This alone will save us a great deal of stress that is unnecessary, since our perception of our situation is really the only thing that tells us our lives are in danger. We may begin to perspire, especially our hands and faces. Our bodies begin to produce adrenalin, which is good if we really do need the extra-human strength to get away from a live tiger or something equally devastating. If not, we are beginning to produce a pattern that will keep us constantly "ON ALERT," which will eventually damage our heart, our digestive tract, and begin an addiction to the danger signals that are being produced.

Managing responses to life is an important part of recovery. Very seldom does that panic button need to be pushed. Learning to breathe into responding to life's situations is the beginning of responsibility and adulthood. Becoming aware that life is not a set of dire emergencies, one right after another, will create the opportunity for responses to be practical, rational and less fraught with emotional drama. When stress does appear, the responses will be automatically calmer and more mature. And it can all begin with the breath.

Kelly McClanahan has an MSW in clinical social work, with a specialization in substance abuse treatment. Having worked in this field for over 20 years, she is currently working on her certification as an addictions' counselor.

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