How to Avoid Burnout in Addiction Recovery

When you make the courageous decision to enter rehab and overcome your addiction, you are full of hope. Everyone says recovery is hard, but you know in your heart you can do it. You want a clean and sober life. You just need the help of a good rehab program and some loving friends.

What you later learn is that there are many hard days along the road to recovery, a road that is longer than you envisioned. At some point, you just don’t think you can move forward any more. The reward doesn’t seem worth the pain, you are tired of living a life that revolves around recovery, or you just don’t think you have any more to learn.

Maintaining the motivation to continue your recovery program – in other words, avoiding burnout – is the key to success. It can be done with the right strategies.

avoid burnout in addiction recovery

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Getting to Know Recovery

It is easy to think the solution to addiction is easy: You check into rehab addicted and you check out clean. If you dig a little deeper, though, you will realize there is more to it than that. Tracing the route of your addiction can give you some insight to what recovery will be like.

Addiction doesn’t really happen overnight, and neither does recovery. Even if you were physically hooked after your very first drug abuse experience, addiction did not happen fast. There was a series of events that took place before your first dose that actually led to your addiction.

addiction recovery burnout

It can start slow, when you are not looking. Addiction begins with a certain set of circumstances that prime your system for what is to come. Not everyone who takes a drink becomes an alcoholic. For some, however, genetic factors are in play. Then, there are life events like abuse and neglect in childhood, the witnessing of a trauma or the loss of a loved one.

These life events don’t necessarily make you an addict, but they could create a predisposition to the disease. Any one of these events or even something else that seemed less traumatic at the time could lay the groundwork in your brain for an eventual addiction.

Many people end up using substances to enhance their mood when they don’t even realize that is what they are doing. They think recreational drug use is just fun or trendy. Everyone likes to feel good once in a while, and the substances make you feel very, very good.

Over time, those substances change your brain chemistry, so you need more of them to achieve that blissful high. That is the addiction intensifying. You cannot experience pleasure without the chemical enhancement, and you now need it more often to feel normal.

In recovery, you start to peel back these layers of chemical intervention and you find there is more turmoil underneath them than you realized. Getting the chemicals out of your system is one step, but keeping them out and healing the emotions they were masking is a whole other part of the recovery process.

Along this adventure, you find yourself riding the waves. Some days you are triumphant, on top of your issues, riding high. Other days you are in a trough fighting to see light. Eventually, with hard work and patience, the waves even out for smoother sailing.

The two biggest keys to surviving addiction recovery are patience and faith. It takes patience to get through the process of healing your emotions and rebuilding your life. It took time for your addiction to develop, and it will take time to create a lasting recovery. It helps to look at recovery as a journey, something that will take you where you want to go but might be full of stops along the way.

keys to addiction recovery

During those stops, when you seem stuck on an issue and not moving forward with your recovery, is when you need faith. Having faith in yourself to be able to withstand and overcome any obstacles can pull you out of those troughs toward the light. It is important to have faith in the process of recovery, as well. There is always a reason for the tough times, even when you cannot figure out what it is.

Addiction Recovery Burnout

When you understand the enormity of your undertaking in addiction recovery, you can see why burnout happens. It is just like working on any big project. At some point before the end, you get tired and think you don’t want to work on it any more. If it weren’t for the time and money you already have invested, and your vision of the outcome, you might stop right there.

Recovery is the same as any big project you’ve done in your life. You have a lot invested in it, financially and emotionally. You may be struggling to keep your job or pay your bills because an addiction took over your life. You cannot even remember how much money you spent on your substance of choice. You need successful recovery to get back on your feet.

successful addiction recovery

More importantly, though, your emotional investment in recovery is huge. The relationships in your life are broken and eroded, some maybe beyond repair. You are exhausted and not sure you can continue your life this way. You walked away from the addiction and everything else to survive, and you are counting on rehab to put your life back together again.

Even though you have a lot at stake, you can reach a point in your recovery where you do not think you can continue. Working on emotional issues some days and living through them on other days can wear you out. You can get an emotional overload that just shuts you down.

Most addicts learn in recovery that there was some big emotional issue their substance abuse was hiding. That issue was too scary to face, so they either consciously or unconsciously retreated into a haze of substance abuse where they did not have to feel any emotions.

The recovery process requires you to address those hidden emotions and feel them to get past them. All of that emotion after months or even years of no emotion can be overwhelming. Since there is no substance to dull the pain, the brain kicks into its own survival mode and shuts down.

You feel like you cannot go on, and then you feel nothing. Both situations can be signs of recovery burnout. Some ideas for avoiding addiction recovery burnout include:

don't be in a hurry to finish rehab

  • Take it slow – Don’t be in a hurry to finish rehab. It is important to dive into your emotional issues, but not all at once. Take your time and address issues one at a time when possible. You’ll want to really recover from one before taking on the next.
  • Stick with the process – Many people have come before you with an addiction and used the rehab process to overcome it. The program is designed with best practices in mind. Ask questions, but follow the steps as they are outlined to you. Do not try to invent your own rehab program, rather use one that is tried and true.
  • Build on your successes – Addiction recovery is a step-by-step learning process. You are learning about yourself and how to reshape your life without substances. When you are struggling with a new concept, look back at your last success and see how you can bring that in to solve the current problem.
  • Let go – Control is a central theme in addiction recovery. You are relinquishing control in order to gain control. It can be a confusing concept. When you are feeling overwhelmed, think about letting go. Let your subconscious guide you where you need to be. If you cannot stop crying, for example, you must not be done dealing with that emotion. The crying will stop when it is resolved.

Emotional overload can lead to recovery burnout. If you anticipate this problem and keep the above ideas in mind, you can avoid burnout and continue doing the emotional work necessary for a lasting recovery.

Addiction Recovery Burnout Comes in Many Forms

When the emotions clear, you may find a different type of burnout in your recovery program. You get used to doing the hard emotional work of recovery, so when you are not feeling emotionally charged, you think recovery is over. A type of complacency can come over you as your withdraw from the emotionally charged adrenaline high.

complacency and relapse

Complacency in recovery can feel triumphant in a way. You assume your work in recovery is done. Sometimes you can even feel invincible, like you never have to worry about addiction again. Of course, the danger here is that you could relapse pretty quickly.

One common sign of impending relapse is complacency. When recovering addicts think they are cured and no longer need their recovery program, life often shows them how wrong they are. Feeling good about your recovery means your program is working. When you stop working your program, you will find yourself in trouble.

Here are some ways to move past your feelings of complacency and re-engage with your recovery:

  • Read a new book – Even when you think you know all about addiction recovery, there is more to learn. Try picking up a new book on a recovery topic, one you haven’t read yet. If your recovery reading is rather extensive, there are always new books coming out. Ask your counselor for a recommendation, or try exchanging books with someone else in your program.
  • Reread an old book – The path to recovery is not straight, and even if you think you’ve arrived at your destination, you can still circle back and learn something new. Try re-reading one of your recovery books that you haven’t picked up in a while. Since you are at a new level of self-awareness than you were the first time you read the book, you will learn something that you did not notice the last time.
  • Become a sponsor – Sponsoring a recovering addict is a way of giving back to the group that helped you get where you are. Giving to others is an important part of recovery. It emphasize your successes, but it also reinforces the lessons you learned. Seeing the same struggles through someone else’s vantage point will give you a new perspective.
  • Attend a new meeting – There is comfort in familiarity, which is probably one of the reasons you always attend the same 12-step meeting. You know most of the others who attend and usually know what to expect. In an effort to shake your complacency, try attending a different meeting. There will still be many similarities, but the people and the dynamics of the group will be different. The new meeting may trigger something new in you.
  • Take a course – It is important to continue to work your program, even when you feel complacent about it. However, there’s no reason you cannot make some changes with that program. Find a course outside your program that fits one of its tenets. You could take a yoga class, for example, that emphasizes meditation and relaxation as a new part of your stress-reduction strategy. You would still be working your program but in a slightly different way.
  • Set a new goal – Complacency comes about when all our goals are met. The easy answer to that conundrum is to make new goals. You may be at a place in your recovery that you never thought you would achieve. Take some time to think about what you want to do next. There is always another milestone to reach. Maybe you want to lead a recovery group, become more independent, or go on a sober cruise. Setting a healthy new goal will give you something to focus on to move your life forward.

continue to work your program

Finding the Balance

In recovery, especially in the beginning, you tend to be surrounded by other people in the same boat as you. You quickly learn the language of recovery, and your whole life suddenly becomes all about addiction, cravings, relapse scares and other recovery related topics.

When you reach a certain point in your recovery, you may begin to feel burned out by recovery talk. Although you will continue working your program for years, maybe even forever, you need a break. You feel like you live in a bubble of recovery while the rest of the world is out there focusing on other issues.

You may notice that the people you used to spend time with have all been replaced by your recovery friends. At the beginning, the support of these new friends who understand what you are going through is important, but when you are feeling stronger, you may miss relationships that are not based on addiction recovery.

find balance in recovery

Balance is an important concept in life, and one that can be applied to recovery burnout. You need to find ways to balance all the recovery work with other activities. If you are feeling burned out in your recovery, here are some suggestions to restore the balance in your life:

  • Set some boundaries – Ask your closest friends and family, the people who have supported your through your recovery, for a break. Set some boundaries for when you will and will not talk about your recovery. It is important to transition back into a regular life and talk about current events, sports or hobbies. You are not asking anyone to forget what you went through, and they should always talk to you if they see a relapse trigger or think you might be having trouble. Ask them to avoid recovery topics on certain days, at certain functions or during specific activities.
  • Step out – Take a class or join a group that is not recovery-based. Getting out into your community will broaden your horizons and add interest to your life. Take a fitness class at your gym or join the community choir. Do something just for fun instead of being concerned about how it impacts your recovery. Be sure not to step out in lieu of your recovery group activities but in addition to them.
  • Change your routine – Routine is the backbone of a healthy recovery, but it does not have to be boring. As you become stronger in your recovery, your need for routine continues, but what you put into that routine can change. Make some changes to your routine that emphasize the new-found joy in your life. Add a new social activity, a standing lunch date with a new friend or a more elaborate self-care regimen.

When Recovery Is Taking Too Long

Burnout can happen when you realize recovery is for the rest of your life. It seems noble to have such a long-term goal when you first get into rehab, but after months of recovery, it can get a little stale. Suddenly, you realize a lifetime is way too long and you just want to do something else.

The early stages of recovery can be a lot easier because you have more problems. In the beginning, it seems like each day brings you to a new milestone. You are learning and improving all the time.

Later in the process, the lessons are bigger, more subtle and sometimes more deep-seated. You may go months without a real breakthrough. Nothing seems to change, you just go over the same material again and again. You keep hoping to see things differently, but as more time passes, you start to think you never will.

Sometimes burnout happens when you think you cannot get any better. When you are stuck on an issue for so long, you want to give up. The struggle doesn’t feel worth it anymore because the reward is not coming. When you hit this kind of burnout, here are some things to try:

break big goals into smaller goals

  • Break it down – The best way to achieve big goals is to break them down into smaller milestones. If you have not had a success in a while, you may be working on a goal that is too big. Figure out a way to break that goal down into steps, and map out which ones you have accomplished and which you still have to achieve. Work toward one small step at a time, ignoring the bigger picture.
  • Celebrate past victories – If you’ve gotten this far, you already have some achievements under your belt. When you are stuck in a dry spell, not seeing any progress for a while, use those old victories to your advantage. Go back and reminisce about your past achievements. Remember how good it felt to see the progress you had made. This celebration will reinforce your ability to succeed. You did it before, you can do it again.
  • Look for the positive – Recovery is about self-evaluation, and that can be brutal. If you are feeling burned out on your recovery, try to focus on the positive. Focusing more attention on what you are doing right rather than on what is going wrong will turn your attitude around. When you can see some rewards, even the small ones, you will become more energized in your recovery.
  • Practice self-care – You are worthy of your own love, even on the days when you do not get anything right. If you are feeling down about your recovery, re-examine your self-care routine. Talking down to yourself or calling yourself names does not demonstrate the self-love you are entitled to. Treating yourself like the precious gift you are will renew your faith in your recovery efforts.

you are worthy

Recovery takes as long as it takes. Prepare yourself for a long journey, and remember to stop along the way to renew your energy. Burnout is a natural reaction to any long journey, but you can avoid being stalled on your way to a lasting recovery.

If you think you might be experiencing burnout in your recovery program, contact 12 Keys Rehab. Let our compassionate staff answer your questions about recovery burnout and other addiction recovery issues.

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