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Getting High (Naturally)

We all know how to take a drink or pill to reach an ecstatic state. But you can also get high without spending a dime—or losing your sobriety.

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By Rachael Brownell

10/24/11

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Since the beginning of time, humans have enjoyed getting high. From peyote to fasting, from booze to orgasm, people love to alter their consciousness and feel good. Some argue that addicts and alcoholics crave this transcendence more than the average person, noting that our brains are just wired differently. And this is a bit of a pickle for those in recovery, particularly those of us who don’t believe someone can actually be high on things like knitting or laundry or scrapbooking. I don’t know about you but I like boom-boom big pleasure: I want dopamine, serotonin, endorphins and zippy laugh-riot good times. While I’ve learned that a lot of those big highs come with devastating lows, there are many people in recovery who’ve learned how to get those natural highs without the long-term losses associated with our using days. 

Heart-pounding workouts: Studies show that exercise boosts your mood, but not just any exercise. Scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology found that the “fleeting sense of euphoria and calm” known as the ‘runner’s high’ requires 50 minutes of hard running on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike. The kind of exercise that alters your brain chemistry varies from person to person, but intensity seems to induce that magic combination of “analgesia and sedation” we associate with the runner’s high. For Ann, a friend and fellow recovering alcoholic, it meant the difference between a 30 and 60 minute run. “I ran 30 minutes each day for several years and never felt a thing other than tired,” she says. “When a friend suggested I double my running time, I finally felt that euphoria she was always talking about. It’s amazing.”

The recovering addict who learns to re-experience old pleasures helps “untie the knot linking pleasure and use.” 

Before a shoulder injury a few years ago, I experienced the same high with Bikram Yoga (also known as “hot yoga”), an intense 90-minute workout in a 100 degree room that detoxes the body and increases the heart rate, all while kicking your ass. At the end of each workout, I felt renewed and rejuvenated. 

Limelight a little: “Where else can you get applause for achieving one day of sobriety?” asks William Berry, teacher and Psychology Today contributor. “Sharing our stories with each other and experiencing true human connection gives us a huge positive boost.” And it’s a point well made. Most people outside of recovery never experience the transformation of their shameful past into a story worth sharing —from a podium in front of a large audience. Berry teaches addicts and alcoholics methods to achieve happiness and believes not only that we have a greater potential for joy than the average non-user but also that sharing your story with an audience of fellow addicts and alcoholics provides a limelight jolt of joy like none other.

Kundalini Yoga: Tommy Rosen, a Kundalini yoga instructor and recovering addict who’s been sober for over 20 years, reached a point in sobriety where “going to meetings and working the steps wasn’t enough. I had overcome acute drug and alcoholism but I was unhappy. It was a tough place to be.” It was at that point that Rosen discovered the benefits of Kundalini Yoga, a yoga practice that combines meditation, breathing, and postures to bring the nervous system and body into alignment with the mind. With Kundalini Yoga, “I felt like I was changing my blood chemistry from the inside out,” he says. “I had another anchor I could turn to every day to get high and it’s a high with both long- and short-term gain.” 

Breathing Consciously: Deep, slow, purposeful breathing is a downright revolutionary act for the often short-attention spanned mind of an addict-alcoholic. It can also alter your consciousness and provide a peace and calm that is tantamount to joy for many of us. 

Colin Kim, a yoga practitioner and fitness instructor, suggests taking three minutes every day to sit down with uncrossed legs, place your hands on your knees, and close your eyes while rolling them up slightly. “Make the decision to relax completely and then slowly inhale through the nose until your lungs itch and exhale through the mouth as though you were fogging a mirror,” he says. Repeating this a minimum of 10 cycles daily will, Kim promises, give the practitioner “a natural and sustainable high” as well as providing a jump-start to a full health regimen.    

Having Sex: “Sex is natural, sex is good. Not everybody does it, but everybody should.” George Michael, singer and fellow addict, shocked and impressed audiences in the mid-90s with this truth. Sex, specifically orgasm, is linked to the kinds of natural highs we can only dream of recreating with a bottle or a pill. After orgasm, our bodies release beta-endorphins, which are natural painkillers and give us a warm glow. While many have to guard against using sex as a drug substitute, a healthy dose of sex is good for everybody. 

While the high of naturally occurring brain chemistry is a wonderful boon to those in recovery, discovering peace of mind sometimes takes longer. According to New York-based psychotherapist Christopher Murray, the recovering addict who learns to re-experience old pleasures helps “untie the knot linking pleasure and use.” Murray often asks clients, “Is it the beer that makes the ballgame fun?” before then saying, “No! It’s turning to someone beside you, friend or stranger, and shouting ‘Did you see that?’” Murray recommends the pleasure-seeking sober person follow a few simple steps to find more joy, such as tagging along on sober outings (to the baseball game, county fair, AA conference, or wherever else) and recreating pleasures from pre-using days like summer picnics, football games, bowling, and dinner parties. 

“Everyone wants a sense of life, euphoria lift, and freedom,” Tommy Rosen reminds us. And those joys and natural highs can be ours, pill-free, today.

Rachael Brownell is a freelance writer and author of the book Mommy Doesn't Drink Here AnymoreShe has written about the importance of humor and what motherhood is really like in sobriety, among other topics, for The Fix.

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