6 Ways to Stay Sober When the Going Gets Rough


by Dr. Elena Bagourdi


It’s hard enough to stay sober when life is on an even keel. But in stressful or triggering moments, the difficulty goes to a whole different level. Staying sober in those moments can be a big challenge. With solid support, commitment and some good coping skills, you can resist cravings and make sure any relapse that may happen is only temporary. 


Here is a toolkit of six coping skills to help you maintain sobriety when you find yourself in difficult moments. 



Self care

1. Rely on a Self-Care Practice 

One of the many ways addiction recovery therapies prepare you to lead a life free of substances is by arming you with positive self-care practices. Meditation is commonly taught, as it is a foundation for mental and emotional stability, as well as growth. Mindfulness meditation for addiction specifically addresses the neurocognitive foundations of addiction, helping to bring psychological balance through awareness. It also has been demonstrated to decrease relapse. For best results, professionals recommend doing meditation daily — even if only for a short period of time. 


If meditation doesn’t work for you, there are plenty of other ways to establish a strong self-care foundation that aims to allow you to be honest and present with yourself and release the frustrations of the day. A few of these tactics include…  


Next time you feel like you’re struggling to stay sober, check-in with yourself to make sure you are implementing self-care tactics like these, all of which will help address what may be motivating you to turn to substances.


Trusted Friend

2. Have a Buddy You Can Call for Support

One cornerstone underlying the strength of 12-step programs is the sponsor: A trusted friend you can call any time you feel in danger of relapse. This person is usually also in a recovery program with a longer history of sobriety. Many Narcotics Anonymous (NA) members report that this support system is one of the biggest factors for sustaining sobriety, and studies show that this support network can be key for those struggling with many different types of substance abuse. 


But you don’t need to be in a 12-step program to have a buddy.  Ask someone you respect if they can be your “go-to” friend in times of need. It’s great if this can be someone successful in their own recovery program or a substance abuse coach, as they will be the most qualified to support you on your journey. That said, it is also key to cultivate supportive relationships with close friends or family members who can step in to support you at a moment’s notice. 


Outpatient therapy


3. Outpatient Therapy

Recovery is a long-term process. Just being sober for 28 days does not always constitute successful recovery. A long-term, outpatient therapy program can keep you grounded in your resolve, while also helping you grow into a stronger version of yourself.  Some outpatient therapy programs also include training in growth-promoting practices like mindfulness meditation. 


Additionally, while some outpatient programs only offer intensive schedules, others like EXIS recovery also include more flexible scheduling, i.e. 1 or 2 sessions per week, matching the individual’s availability and daily life demands. It is very easy to become therapy-averse if you have been to multiple treatment centers in the course of getting sober. However, therapy is still that safe space that functions as a mirror of the self in the presence of a supportive individual who cares about you. As such, therapy is the space to let loose, relax, and productively check in with yourself, in the presence of someone who has known you through your sobriety journey and is still very much on your side.  


avoid trigerring environments


4. Leave Triggering Environments

When you have Substance Use Disorder, your body seeks to prevent death and injury by changing to a state opposite that of the drug’s effect. When your body perceives that you’re about to ingest the drug, it will go into that state in advance, anticipating a dose of poison. Some of the cues it takes to induce this response are environmental cues such as a room you used to use in, people you used to get high with or implements like crack pipes, syringes and wine glasses. This can happen long after withdrawal and detox. Former Heroin addicts long past the withdrawal process, for example, can walk into a place where they used to inject and begin sweating and experiencing muscle aches and agitation, even though they have been sober for years. 


It’s best to avoid places where you have used or consumed substances, as well as environments with other triggering cues all together. However, if you must enter a triggering environment, be aware of this phenomenon, and be prepared to leave if cravings start to overwhelm you. Mindfulness and relaxation practices can substantially help with this. Through these practices, it is possible to breathe through the cravings brought about by triggers, desensitize to the triggering environment and decouple the environment from its drug association. Know your limits, though — if cravings start to get overwhelming, get out of there!




5. Exercise and Healthy Eating

Addiction is often about addressing real needs in nonfunctional ways. Sometimes the needs are complex, like sociocultural disintegration and alienation, but other times they’re quite simple, like your body needing healthy food. You will feel bad if your body is not being taken care of, and this can drive you to try to feel better through substance use. Nutrition has been associated with positive treatment outcomes, and exercise has been associated with relapse prevention through reduction in substance cravings. Although, some forms of exercise — such as team sports with a culture that glorifies substance use or extreme sports — can have the opposite effect. Always ask yourself: Is this activity about health or about something else, like a thrill?


A healthy diet and regular, healthy physical exercise will make you feel better in general. When you feel good, you crave less. A particularly good practice is yoga which combines mindfulness with exercise and awareness of the body, as well as other practices like Tai Chi, Pilates or dance. Keep trying different types of exercise until you land on what feels good — it is important that you identify which physical routine matches you and your preferences, so you’ll feel motivated to stick to it. 


Carry an Honest List with You of High-Risk Feelings


6. Carry an Honest List with You of High-Risk Feelings 

Part of recovery involves an honest look in the mirror and acknowledgment of our weaknesses. For this coping method, sit down and take stock of what feelings lead you to relapse or near-relapse.  These can be feelings of anger, shame, loneliness or tiredness. Along with each feeling, list one or more healthy ways to address the feeling, such as calling a friend for loneliness. When a craving starts to build, take out your list and ask yourself what you’re really feeling deep down. Then, address the feeling without resorting to your addictive behavior using the healthy responses you have included in your list.


 Finally, remember that the answer to the question, “What is recovery?” is not “perfect, pain-free sober living.” Ideally, once you commit to sobriety, you need never relapse again. However, if you do relapse, it needn’t become a pattern. These six practices can help you resist the urge of relapse and bounce back from any relapses that do occur with a firm resolve to do better in the future.



Are Extreme Athletes at a Greater Risk for Drug and Alcohol Abuse?


Can exercise help conquer addiction? 


Exercise as a novel treatment for drug addiction: a neurobiological and stage-dependent hypothesis.


A Healthy State of Mind.


Mindfulness meditation in the treatment of substance use disorders and preventing future relapse: neurocognitive mechanisms and clinical implications.


A Narrative Review of Yoga and Mindfulness as Complementary Therapies for Addiction.


Nutrition education is positively associated with substance abuse treatment program outcomes.


Shame: The Core of Addiction and Codependency


The Road to Recovery


Warning Signs of Relapse: Depression, Stress and Other Triggers


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