Anyone who’s ever been there can tell you that recovering from an addiction isn’t easy. It takes time to re-learn healthy ways of thinking and behaving. It takes time for old habits to give way to a new style of living and relapse prevention.
Relapse is often an integral part of recovery. Relapse rates for addiction are similar to those of other chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension. Between 40 and 60 percent of people in recovery relapse at least once.1
The good news is that relapse is now regarded as an opportunity to evaluate your recovery plan and determine what skills you’re missing that led to the relapse.2 Developing those missing skills often makes the second go-around much easier and increases the odds that you’ll successfully abstain for the long-term.
Once treatment ends, the fastest way to a relapse thinking that you’re “cured,” and that’s that. Successful recovery requires daily practice and a great deal of attention to detail in the early months. The more engaged you are in your recovery plan, the more likely you’ll achieve long-term sobriety.
Successful recovery requires daily practice and a great deal of attention to detail in the early months.
- Exercises in Mindfulness
- Exercises in Positive Thinking
- Exercises to Relieve Stress
- Holistic Exercises for Overall Good Health
Remember that everyone’s pathway to recovery is different. Some exercises that work for others may not work that well for you, or vice versa, and that’s perfectly fine. Just take what works and run with it.
EXERCISES IN MINDFULNESS
Being mindful means centering your awareness in the present moment and acknowledging your thoughts and emotions and how your body feels. Mindfulness is absolutely essential in recovery, and, many instances of lapse and relapse could have been avoided through ongoing self-assessment.
Mindfulness is absolutely essential in recovery.
Relapse occurs in three stages, and each stage is associated with certain unhealthy thoughts, emotions and behaviors. Through mindfulness, you can become aware of these and correct them before they lead to a slip-up. If you’ve been engaged in cognitive-behavioral therapy, you’ll know how to identify and evaluate these negative feelings and actions and replace them with healthier ways of thinking and behaving.
Mindfulness is a learned skill. These three exercises will help you develop a higher and more habitual level of mindfulness while increasing your intuition and self-awareness.
Practice Mindful Meditation
Meditation is mindfulness in its purest form. It helps you focus intentionally and without judgment on the present moment. This facilitates mindful responses to any given situation rather than responding out of habit.
The practice of meditation has been shown to reduce drug use and foster optimism, and it can help ease symptoms of mental illness like anxiety or depression.3 Meditation is an effective tool for developing a new perspective on stressful situations and building stress management skills, increasing self-awareness and reducing negative emotions.4
How to Meditate
Find a comfortable spot and set a timer for five or ten minutes. Sit comfortably, and focus all of your attention on your breath as it moves in and out of your body. Your attention will wander, and when it does, don’t beat yourself up. Just bring it gently back to your breath. When thoughts enter into your head—and they inevitably will—observe them without judgment and then let them go.
It may help to visualize your thoughts as a leaf in a stream. Regard them impartially, and then let them float by and out of sight as you bring your attention back to your breath.
That’s really all there is to it. At first, it will be difficult to keep your focus on your breath, but as you practice regularly, it will become easier. Soon, you’ll begin to notice the benefits:
- Your overall stress level will decrease
- You’ll be more aware of your thoughts and behaviors
- You’ll be kinder and gentler with yourself
As you get the hang of it, gradually extend the length of your meditation sessions.
Go Urge Surfing
Cravings are an unfortunate fact of life when you’re in recovery, and they can quickly lead you back to using if you’re not very careful. Thankfully, cravings rarely last longer than a half hour, and urge surfing is an effective way of getting through it through pure mindfulness. Instead of fighting the craving, you’re pulling up a chair for it and inviting it in. Sometimes, this is the best way to handle our enemies.
How to Urge Surf
When a craving strikes, sit in a comfortable place and take a few deep breaths to help you relax. Close your eyes and try to determine exactly where in your body you feel the craving. Describe to yourself the sensations of the craving in different parts of your body, really get to know it.
Picture the craving as a swelling ocean wave approaching land. Put yourself right on top of that wave and ride it until it breaks on the shore and dissipates. The wave of craving will recede, leaving you—still standing—on the shore of sobriety.
EXERCISES IN POSITIVE THINKING
Negative emotions like frustration, anger, fear and intolerance are characteristics of the first stage of relapse, which is known as emotional relapse. Negative emotions usually lead to negative behaviors.5 It can be difficult to maintain a positive outlook when you’re saddled with stress, experiencing intense cravings or feeling bad about yourself.
Negative emotions usually lead to negative behaviors.
These exercises in positivity can help you change your negative emotions into positive ones, but remember: it takes practice.
Repeat Daily Affirmations
For some, daily affirmations lead to big changes. Affirmations are positive statements that you repeat to yourself several times a day. The idea is that repeating certain thought patterns creates new neural pathways and conditions our brains to begin to think in a new way.
A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that affirmations can improve self-control and willpower.6 Another study, published in the journal Psychological Science, found that repeating daily affirmations improves self-confidence and fosters positive social interactions.7
Motivational author Louise Hay explains that every word you speak and every thought you think is an affirmation, whether positive or negative. These affirmations create your experience.8 Replacing negative self-talk with positive self-talk can lead to real and permanent change from the inside out.
Replacing negative self-talk with positive self-talk can lead to real and permanent change from the inside out.
How to Benefit from Affirmations
Begin your day by repeating your affirmation out loud for five minutes while you look in the mirror. You can do this while you’re putting on your makeup or shaving. Lean into the affirmation as you repeat it. Breathe into it, feel it in your body. Help yourself believe it by understanding that most negative thoughts stem from a false belief about yourself or the world. Identify that false belief and replace it with the affirmation.
Choose one of the following affirmations to start, or make up your own based on a negative thought, or false belief, that affects how you feel about yourself, such as “I’m a failure,” or “I’m unlovable.”
- I am loved.
- I have many talents.
- I am not a victim.
- I have worth and a good heart.
- I am emotionally strong.
- I respect myself.
- I am confident.
- I don’t dwell on the past.
- I can make good choices.
Accentuate the Positive
Sometimes, negative thinking becomes such a habit that you don’t even realize you’re doing it. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offers a number of exercises you can try for turning your emphasis away from negativity and toward positivity:9
- Replace negative words like “I can’t…” with positive ones, such as “I will try to…”
- Think of five things that you’re grateful for right now, in this moment.
- Mindfully create a positive thought or visualize a happy image when you feel negative emotions.
- Praise yourself for what you’re doing right.
- Forgive yourself for mistakes, and move on. Imagine sweeping mistakes into a deep, dark hole, where they’ll never surface again.
- Create a living space that honors who you are. Make it comfortable and attractive.
- Do something nice for someone else.
- Do something nice for yourself.
EXERCISES TO RELIEVE STRESS
Stress is a major relapse trigger. The more you can work to manage the stress in your life, the better off you’ll be. This is especially true if your addiction resulted from self-medicating stress in the first place, as many are.10
The more you can work to manage the stress in your life, the better off you’ll be.
High levels of stress lead to negative emotional states, which can lead directly to a slip-up. These exercises will help you reduce your body’s levels of stress hormones on the spot.
Deep breathing exercises can induce a relaxation response, which is a physical state of rest that reduces your heart rate, relaxes your muscles, slows your breathing and lowers your blood pressure.11 Use these deep breathing exercises at least once a day, and use them any time you feel particularly stressed.
The Quieting Response
Developed by a stress management expert from Yale University, the quieting response is a deep-breathing technique that can relax you in under ten seconds.
- Smile really big to release a wave of endorphins, those feel-good chemicals in your body.
- Imagine big holes on the soles of your feet. Breathe in slowly and deeply, and imagine the breath entering your body through the holes and slowly moving up your legs and into your abdomen and chest.
- As you exhale, relax the muscles in your body as the air moves back down through your legs, and out the holes.
Developed by holistic physician Dr. Andrew Weil, this breathing technique reduces stress on the spot.
- Make a whooshing sound as you exhale completely.
- Close your mouth, and inhale through your nose to the count of four.
- Hold your breath to the count of seven.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making the whooshing sound, to the count of eight.
- Repeat three more times.
Research shows that laughter is a potent stress reducer. Laughter has far-reaching, long-term effects such as better immunity, pain relief, a higher sense of personal satisfaction and an improved mood.12
Practice laughing every day. Read the comics, watch a comedy or visit a funny friend. If you can’t find something funny to laugh about, fake it. Laugh heartily for a good thirty seconds, and you’ll likely find that the laughter becomes real. If not, you’ll still get many of the stress-relieving benefits of laughter.
Creating art is an effective stress reliever. Making art helps you synthesize difficult emotions, focus on positive life experiences and enhance your self-worth and self-identity.13
Any kind of art will do: Painting, drawing, sculpting, crafting, collaging, sewing and knitting are among endless good options. Don’t worry if you aren’t “good” at art. You’re creating it for you. Once you find a medium you enjoy, try to create every day to ease your stress and improve your mood.
HOLISTIC EXERCISES FOR OVERALL GOOD HEALTH
Let’s not forget about good old, regular exercise. Moving your body is essential for good physical and mental health, and good physical and mental health are crucial for successful recovery. The Centers for Disease Control recommends 150 minutes of physical activity each week, which boils down to a half hour a day, five days a week.14
It’s important to note that you don’t have to complete your half hour in one go. Three ten-minute increments of exercise offer the same benefits as 30 consecutive minutes.
Exercise reduces stress, improves your mood and helps alleviate cravings. But if you don’t particularly enjoy physical activity or absolutely despise working out at a gym, a more holistic approach to exercise is essential for keeping you motivated to get a move on every day. Here are a few ways to get some quality exercise that don’t involve crowded classes or noisy weight machines.
Exercise reduces stress, improves your mood and helps alleviate cravings.
Walk the Dog
Having a dog is a great excuse to get outside and walk (or jog, if you prefer) around the neighborhood. Walking can be very meditative, especially if your best friend is at your heel. Let your thoughts pass by like that leaf in a stream, and focus your attention on your senses: What do you see and hear? How does the sun—or the rain—feel on your skin? What sounds are your feet making as you walk? Walking is excellent physical and mental exercise for both you and your dog.
Work in the Garden
Yard work is another effective physical activity that’s highly meditative. Getting your hands dirty and working toward an end goal in the yard brings a keen feeling of satisfaction and a job well done. Yard work that involves bending, squatting, lifting, digging, raking and pushing is particularly good physical exercise that’ll have you working up a sweat in no time.
Go for a Swim
Swimming is a very peaceful way to get in a good workout. Swimming is particularly helpful for those with joint problems, since it’s a low-impact activity. Water is also very therapeutic. It can help reduce pain, ease depression and improve your quality of sleep.
Take a Hike
Put on your hiking shoes and hit the trails for a great round of exercise and a healthy dose of trees and sky. According to the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing, communing with nature reduces stress and feelings of fear and anger. It also lowers your blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension and stress hormone levels.15
Dancing has many benefits, beyond the physical exercise it offers.16 Dancing to your favorite music improves your mood, boosts self-esteem, hones your coping abilities and improves your overall sense of well-being. Whether you take a dance class, join a dance group or just sashay around the kitchen while you’re mopping, dancing is an enjoyable and beneficial way to get some quality exercise.
RELAPSE PREVENTION: IT ALL BOILS DOWN TO A NEW LIFESTYLE
A healthy lifestyle is essential for those in recovery. The exercises in this guide are as much about making permanent, healthy lifestyle choices as they are about improving mindfulness, promoting relaxation, fostering positivity and improving your physical health.
This list isn’t comprehensive, but the exercises herein are a good place to start if you want to make small lifestyle changes that will add up to big results. Recovering from an addiction isn’t easy, but a healthy lifestyle that takes a holistic approach to good physical, mental and spiritual health will greatly improve your chances for successful, long-term recovery.
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- Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction. (2014, July). Retrieved from http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/treatment-recovery
- Melemis, S. (2015, September). Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery. Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 88(3), 325-332. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4553654/
- Zgierska, A., Rabago, D., Zuelsdorff, M., Coe, C., Miller, M., & Fleming, M. (2014). Mindfulness Meditation for Alcohol Relapse Prevention: A Feasibility Pilot Study. Journal of Addiction Medicine, 2(3), 165-173. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4106278/
- Meditation: A Simple, Fast Way to Reduce Stress. (2014, July 19). Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/meditation/in-depth/meditation/art-20045858
- Larimer, M. E., Palmer, R. S., & Marlatt, G.A. (1999). Relapse Prevention: An Overview of Marlatt’s Cognitive-Behavioral Model. Alcohol Research and Health, 23(2), 151-160. Retrieved from http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh23-2/151-160.pdf
- Schmeichel, B. J. and Vohs, K. (2009, April). Self-Affirmation and Self-Control: Affirming Core Values Counteracts Ego Depletion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(4), 770-782. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19309201
- Stinson, D. A., Logel, C., Shepherd, S., and Zanna, M. P. (2011). Rewriting the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Social Rejection. Psychological Science, 22(9), 1145-1149. Retrieved from http://pss.sagepub.com/content/22/9/1145
- Hay, L. (n.d.). The Power of Affirmations. Retrieved from http://www.louisehay.com/the-power-of-affirmations/
- Curie, C. G., & Arons, B. S. (n.d.). Building Self-Esteem: A Self-Help Guide. Retrieved from https://store.samhsa.gov/shin/content/SMA-3715/SMA-3715.pdf
- Brady, K. T., & Sonne, S. C. (1999). The Role of Stress in Alcohol Use, Alcoholism Treatment, and Relapse. Alcohol Research and Health, 23(4), 263-271. Retrieved from http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh23-4/263-271.pdf
- Take a Deep Breath. (2012, August 10). Retrieved from http://www.stress.org/take-a-deep-breath/
- Stress Relief from Laughter? It’s No Joke. (2013, July 23). Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-relief/art-20044456
- Stuckey, H. L., &Nobel, J. (2010, February). The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature. American Journal of Public Health, 100(2), 254-263. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2804629/
- How Much Physical Activity Do Adults Need? (2015, June 4). Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/adults/
- How Does Nature Impact Our Wellbeing? (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/enhance-your-wellbeing/environment/nature-and-us/how-does-nature-impact-our-wellbeing
- The Many Health Benefits of Dancing. (2014, November 20). Retrieved from http://www.berkeleywellness.com/fitness/active-lifestyle/article/many-health-benefits-dancing