Taking Care of Your Mental Health in Sobriety

By Helaina Hovitz 08/15/19
Pre-sobriety, alcohol and drugs often serve as coping mechanisms. When you quit, you'll need different kinds of mental and emotional support. Make sure you have tools and solutions in place.
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Woman lying on the floor reading comics, self-care, mental health in recovery
It’s important to have a healthy eat, sleep, work, play routine, and if you don’t have one, it’s time to make one.  Photo by Joe Ciciarelli on Unsplash

PSA: there’s some text missing from the headlines popping up lately that show quitting drinking improves women's mental health

Essentially, the findings of the Canadian Medical Association Journal are that not drinking at all is actually better for your health than drinking when you’re stressed, no matter how much you want to lean into the whole a-glass-of-red-wine-a-day-is-good-for-you thing.

But it’s not that simple. There’s no foolproof formula like: “If I stop drinking, then my mental health will improve” (as nice as that would be).

For many of us, there’s legwork necessary for improving our mental health when we stop drinking and using drugs, in addition to simply stopping. When you stop drinking for an extended period of time (for some of us that may mean 24 hours, others, 4 weeks or 3 months), you may realize that you have symptoms of alcoholism or drug addiction, and the work you need to do to live a healthier life without substances will be outlined for you at a rehab facility, in a 12-step program, or via another form of recovery. 

Or you may realize you are more of a problem drinker, who feels uncomfortable without a drink at meals, social gatherings, or after a long day, but you want to give it up for lifestyle or health reasons. You also likely have work to do for your mental health. 

Why? Well, it was making you happy. It relaxed you. It calmed your anxiety. It signified fun, the loss of some inhibition, made things just a bit warmer and brighter and easier. It was a reward, it was something to do, and it was a way to cope with stress; not just day-to-day stress, but the stress of memories and past events that you carry around without even knowing and need to let go of. 

If you respond internally with “Oh, darn, oh well” to the idea of a lifetime without Rosé all day, this may not pertain to you. But no matter why you drink or how often, alcohol is doing something for you. If you give it up, you may need to find another way of getting that need met. We all have (or had) our reasons, whether we’re aware of them or not, for drinking. And if it’s not just something we can just choose to leave in the interest of a more mindful yogi life or healthier gut, then it’s something we probably need to look at. 

I spent a few years in my late teens and early twenties trying to stop drinking on my own. I was already in very strong recovery from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)—but I had no idea what I was in for when I took alcohol and weed out of the equation. If I wasn’t already in therapy, forget it—I don’t think I could have done it. 

But what helped me the most back then were the steps, the social supports, reaching out for help, having places to go and people to see where alcohol was not present, and the continued ability to work on myself—and some other issues I didn’t know I had until I’d stopped drowning them in “social” drinks. 

In your first few months to a year of stopping drinking, you’re going to need more than just a positive attitude to stay mentally healthy—especially because life will come slap it right out of you one day without warning, as life tends to do. 

Here’s how you can make sure you’re prepared for anything. 

Professional Help

While not all therapists are amazing, the right therapist can pretty much be a hero in your life—someone who listens to you, makes you feel heard, and makes themselves available to you via text and email when you're in crisis. These therapists guide you, challenge you, and help you grow. 

A good therapist will see issues that drinking masked. 

My roster included PTSD, Pre-Menstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD), and I fit the bill for a few symptoms of other overlapping issues. Specific therapy, targeted therapy, is crucial for a strong recovery. For me, that meant Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), but a therapist who specializes in addiction can also be a valuable asset. 

We have to learn new ways of being in the world from people who understand what we’re going through and who can be objective, reliable, and helpful supports, and while seeking comfort and wisdom from our friends and family is invaluable, nothing can take the place of professional help. 

Social Support and Community

It’s important to lean not just on the friends you have already, but please, find a meet up, a meeting, even a local non-drinkers’ gathering where you can slowly start to form a group of contacts you can call, text, or hang out with who know how to deal with some of the issues you may experience.

At a 12-step meeting, you can word-vom literally everything going on to a stranger, but it’s a good idea to take more care and go slower when establishing lighthearted dishing with other folks who don’t drink but who don’t identify as “addicts or alcoholics.” 

As for your “drinking” and “using” and “partying” friends—just start to bring some awareness into the picture when you’re around them. Do they still want to hang out and do something if you’re not drinking, or going to a club or a bar? When we change, the people in our lives either change with us, or we realize we’re heading in a different direction. 

Self-Care

Self-care has become such a buzzword that we kind of just make it fit anywhere:

Bath time! Self-care.

Massage! Self-care. 

Five gluten-free, vegan cupcakes! Self-care.

All of these things (except maybe keep an eye on the cupcake count because sugar) qualify, and they’re wonderful. Start to figure out what makes you feel good—as you’re doing it, and not just as a means to an end. 

Note: if you hate massages, that is not self-care. 

But if you like to read, setting aside time from your busy schedule to spend a couple hours with a good book is a great example of self-care.

Saying no to events you don’t want to go to when you’re exhausted—unless it’s for a good friend, or you might lose your job if you refuse—is self-care. 

Meditation: This is terrifying at first, but it’s really not so bad if you ease into it, like sticking your toe in the temperature-regulated hotel pool. You can start with two minutes a day, and you can use an app to help you along, offering everything from vocal guidance to a gentle gong to signify the end of a timed silent session. As far as guided meditations go, they're now specific to everything from commuting to being sick and there’s even one that addresses nervousness about meditating. And there are devices available to help, like a headband that can track your level of calm and bring your awareness back to your breath with nature sounds.

Exercise and diet: You’ve got to keep moving. You may already be in shape, or you may be “out of shape,” but in addition to giving yourself permission to replace the sugar in alcohol with the sugar in doughnuts, it's time to start treating your body better, since there is such a strong connection between your microbiome (gut), your brain (the prefrontal cortex reacts to processed sugar the same way it reacts to opioids—by triggering dopamine) and your overall feeling of being healthy, especially mentally healthy. You don’t need to become someone who runs a 5K or hits the gym every day and pretends to like it. But keeping your body in motion and eating healthier will yield many benefits, some immediate and some that you’ll see over time, including better sleep, improved mood, stress relief, and more. 

Upgrade Your PPTs (people, places, things) 

New life, new people, new things, new places, new activities. It doesn’t make sense to keep hanging out at bars anymore, and there’s a difference between showing up to a bridal shower where other women may be drinking and heading to your old haunt where the only thing to do is drink, especially after a stressful day.

Start to discover the world around you. Try taking some classes, visit new neighborhoods and cultural institutions. See if you can pick up new hobbies or dig deeper into old ones. Use social media and the Internet to track down other people doing the same.

It can be hard, as an adult, to make new friends, but it’s not impossible. Go somewhere people chat. A dog run or park (if you have a dog or even if you're just “considering” getting one and gathering information), a meet up for people who love anime, a writer’s collective. Join Facebook groups or browse Meetup and see what’s out there! Taking a class by yourself is also a great way to double down: not only will you learn something new, but you'll find others who share your interest, maybe even someone else who was also badass enough to show up solo. 

Logistical Stability

It’s important to have a healthy eat, sleep, work, play routine, and if you don’t have one, it’s time to make one. 

You may already have a job that you need to turn your attention to even more deeply, and you may have a passion project you want to add into the mix. Most importantly, you should get involved with volunteer work—you don’t have to serve food at a soup kitchen; maybe you can offer your writing skills to a nonprofit, or if you know graphic design you can help them build their new website. 

If you don’t have a steady job, look for one—a sober job is often referred to as one that isn’t our dream career, but is a place that we have to show up to regularly, keeps us accountable, provides an environment to socialize with others, and is a way for us to earn honest money. 

If your current job makes you so unhappy it contributed to your drinking, maybe look around for something better and if you feel you’re ready, go for that dream job.

Also, make sure your housing situation is safe and affordable, and conducive to your new way of life (i.e., if you chose your roommates because they party 24/7, it might be time to look for a new place).

Bottom line: It’s dangerous for people who might be using alcohol or drugs to self-medicate depression or other underlying conditions to give up that medication without other supports, tools, and solutions in place. Your life is going to get bigger and better, and you’re going to get healthier—but as with all good things that don’t create a false feeling of safety and happiness, you have to do a little work to get there.

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Helaina Hovitz Credit Celestina Ando Photography_0.jpg

Helaina Hovitz is an editor, journalist, and author of After 9/11. She has written for The New York Times, Salon, Glamour, Women's Health, Newsweek, Teen Vogue, VICE, Reader’s Digest, Forbes, The New York Observer and many others. Visit her on Facebook, Twitter, or HelainaHovitz.com.

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