When I first came into recovery, I recall someone who I respected a lot (either a treatment counselor or my 12 Steps sponsor) telling me, “Man, you’ve gotta’ lighten up your grip on the steering wheel!”
At that moment, I didn’t really know what he was referring to… but I sure have learned a lot about “it”—stress management—since hearing that cautioning suggestion!
My stress level and my (conscious and unconscious) beliefs that I needed to control everything were both off the charts back then, and I’m pretty sure a big part of that was due to my having been enslaved by my addiction to alcohol and drugs for, not just years, but decades.
There were countless ways my high-stress, “control freak” nature manifested itself, including:
- I often felt unnecessarily anxious about “how things were going” or what others around me were doing
- I compulsively strategized about how to get what I wanted as quickly as possible
- When triggered (e.g., feeling fearful, vulnerable or lacking something), I immediately tried to exert my influence over someone else’s decisions or behaviors
- I’d regularly micromanage employees’ tasks at work
- I’d get upset when something out of my control happened in a “cared about” relationship.
When I came into recovery, I soon saw that people who had been “clean and sober” a good while and were practicing a daily program of recovery in their lives seemed less stressed out, less needing to control the people and situations around them, and more accepting of “things as they are.” Also, my counselor pointed out to me that trying to control what actually couldn’t be controlled was only adding to my stress.
By asking questions about how best to deal with stress, and being open-minded about following suggestions that were offered to me, I started seeing I could actually choose to do things differently, and not just blindly follow my “first reaction,” which quite often was to struggle with or resist whoever or whatever was in front of me (i.e., trying to manipulate things my way).
Instead, I learned a number of important tips that have, in one instance or another, helped me “do the next right thing” and become increasingly familiar with “the priceless gift of serenity.”
Here are a few that have worked well and which I use as often as necessary in my daily recovery:
- Identify what makes me feel stressed, what triggers me into feeling stressed. By clearly knowing in advance what bothers me to the point of anxiety or anger, I can figure out (with help, as necessary) how to adjust my attitudes or behaviors (or both) and go forward with greater understanding and less emotionality. Also, when I’m aware of my triggers, I can be more diligent about avoiding them and more able to prepare myself mentally and emotionally for dealing with them, if one should arise.
- Ask myself honestly, “What are the consequences when I don’t manage my stress?” One helpful tip used by millions of people in recovery can be distilled down to: “Play out the tape… all the way!” By earnestly and thoroughly reflecting on where drinking or using always would lead me (in my case, it was jails, car crashes, ruined relationships and the like), I was giving myself the opportunity to choose the future I wanted, rather than be victim to the negative (usually horrible) consequences that invariably would happen if I chose to take a drink or use. Same with “playing out the tape” regarding handling stress. In recovery, I’ve learned principles and practices (e.g., from counselors, my sponsor and those in my recovery network) that are like a “toolkit” I can use to address the sometimes stressful affairs of my daily life. But it’s up to me to use them! One is to reflect, whenever necessary (like when I’m triggered), on what my life will be like and what the results I’ll likely be facing if I don’t use what’s in my toolkit—including stress management tools—versus if I do choose to apply those principles and practices. The choice, indeed, is mine to make!
- Whenever necessary, just leave. I learned that if the stress level of a given situation “has me going” (i.e., I’m overwhelmed and about to react in an unhealthy, undesirable way), I can always stop what I’m doing or saying and just leave. Sometimes I’ve found that leaving the room, going to the nearest bathroom or walking out to my car, afford me the chance to give myself a few minutes (or more) to settle down. Occasionally, I’ll meditate or pray for guidance. The point is, if I simply “exit” the place where I was feeling stress building up or triggering me, I am consciously disallowing it to escalate and giving myself permission to take whatever time I need to redirect my energy and attention in the direction I want it to be going. Ultimately, no one can stop me from this act of responsible self-care, and I’ll be less stressed going forward.
Hopefully, one or all three of these tips will prove helpful as you navigate your way, with increasingly less stress, along the road of recovery.