Of the many reasons people shy away from treating drug and alcohol addiction, a critical one is the fear you won’t be able to have fun anymore once you’re sober. After being reliant on intoxicating substances for so long, you may think it seems impossible to live a fulfilling life without it, and being able to enjoy yourself in your downtime is a huge part of leading a healthy life.
Without the artificial stimulation of drugs or drinking, many people in recovery can’t seem to shake the feeling that life has lost its luster. So how can you put the spring back in your step and engage in rewarding experiences while sober?
Your Brain on Drugs and Alcohol
In order to start having fun again without drinking or drugs, you need to know why your brain makes you feel the way you do. Humans learn and are motivated by action in the “reward circuit” of the brain, and addiction disrupts normal function of that circuit. Take a look at some of the most important structures in the brain’s reward circuit.
- Amygdala: This part of your brain is primarily responsible for conditioned learning, i.e., creating associations between environmental events and establishing whether or not those experiences are positive. For example, the amygdala would be responsible for creating a negative association with an attack by a predator and conditioning you to have a flight response. It works the same way with stress; natural stimuli such as eating, exercising, etc.; and drugs or alcohol, creating a positive association that causes you to go back for more.
- Hypothalamus: This structure handles extremely important functions, such as memory, pleasure and pain. This is where the brain creates the feelings of euphoria associated with drinking and drugs, and it plays a huge role in reinforcing the pleasant memories that make a person return to substance abuse over and over again.
- Frontal Cortex: When it comes to addiction, willpower is a huge factor. The frontal cortex houses the structures that are responsible for governing executive function — or decision-making. Under the prolonged influence of drugs and alcohol, the normal decision-making capabilities are impaired and impulsivity increases.
Collectively, these structures determine how you experience drug and alcohol use, and reinforce the desire to use those substances. But how exactly does that happen? Your brain is constantly receiving, processing and sending out information, by way of messengers called neurotransmitters. Drugs and alcohol work in one of two ways:
- Drugs such as marijuana and heroin mimic your brain’s natural neurotransmitters but send abnormal messages once they bind to the brain’s receptors.
- Others, such as cocaine and methamphetamine, stimulate the production of neurotransmitters, or prevent them from being recycled normally.
Exploring the Reward Circuit
Either way, drugs have a profound effect on the reward circuit system. Under normal circumstances, this pathway is only stimulated by regular, necessary interactions. This can include actions such as eating or spending time with friends and family — and while those are fun as well as necessary, they simply don’t hold a candle to the artificial stimulation provided by drugs and alcohol.
Over time, repeated substance abuse causes your brain to stop responding to regular stimuli altogether, which is why it feels like you can’t have any fun without drinking or drugs. Your brain has essentially forgotten how. Not only are regular stimuli unsatisfying, but prolonged addiction results in tolerance to drugs, so that it takes more and more of the substance to achieve the artificial feelings of euphoria.
Even if a person is aware of their addiction, knows that they need to stop using, and even makes multiple attempts, the addicted brain has other plans. The amygdala, hypothalamus and frontal cortex all work together to create a very strong sense of motivation to use drugs and alcohol, even at the expense of other priorities such as work and family.
That’s why it’s so hard to beat addiction, and why life seems to lose its spark even when substance abuse is out of the picture. Imagine you lived on a diet of incredibly rich restaurant foods for months, and then were forced to go back to a regimen of regular home-cooked meals. There’s nothing wrong with what you make at home, and sometimes it’s even quite delicious — but you’d still have a hard time adjusting and probably spend quite a bit of time figuring out how to get your hands back on the ecstasy-inducing restaurant food.
Even so, after a period of adjustment, you’d come to realize all the benefits of home-cooked food and accept it as the new normal. That’s one way to understand how your brain initially reacts to sobriety.
Looking at Life from a New Perspective
Now that you know how your brain’s pleasure and motivation centers work under the influence of addiction, you can turn your attention to undoing all those negative changes. Critical thinking is essential in re-training your brain to have sober fun. One of the most important ways of doing this is to separate what your addicted brain is telling you from what you yourself actually want in everyday situations.
Let’s imagine a scenario where you and some friends have decided to go out to dinner after the first phases of your recovery from alcoholism. Since restaurants typically have bars or at least offer a few types of alcohol on menus, they can be a pretty risky environment for those recovering from alcohol dependency.
Even if your companions aren’t drinking, you’re likely to see it around you — and that can be a huge trigger for anyone. You may find yourself starting to feel antsy and unable to focus on your friends, the food or the fun you could be having due to your mind wandering constantly to alcohol.
How can you apply critical thinking in this situation?
The most important thing to do when you’re trying to have fun without drinking or drugs is to determine what’s real, as opposed to what your brain is telling you in order to get you to use again. There are many questions you can ask yourself, including:
- Why do I want to drink or use drugs right now?
- Do I believe it will increase my social status?
- Do I believe it will increase my enjoyment of the situation?
- Am I currently feeling stress or anxiety?
- Am I experiencing depressive symptoms?
The key is to collect and process as much information as you can on how you are currently relating to your surroundings. This will allow you to get a much clearer and more objective perspective on your own cravings and triggers, thereby making it easier to say no, even when your brain is convinced drinking or drugs will improve whatever activity you’re participating in.
In the case of the fictional dinner outing, asking these types of questions can help you get back into the moment and see it for the fun experience it is, rather than spend the whole time wondering if it would be better if you were intoxicated.
Making Use of Mindfulness Meditation
One fantastic tool in the sober fun arsenal is mindfulness meditation. This is essentially a meditative technique that boosts your capacity for self-awareness — a key skill in combatting cravings. The American Psychological Association has come to the consensus that mindfulness is an extremely effective tool in the treatment of many conditions, including addiction. In addition to helping you boost your capacity for having fun without drinking or drugs, mindfulness offers these benefits:
- Reduces rumination, or dwelling on negative subjects and emotions
- Reduces stress and depressive symptoms
- Increases memory capacity
- Improves focus
- Decreases emotional reactivity
- Improves cognitive flexibility
- Increases relationship satisfaction
As you can see, the efficacy of mindfulness is impressive all around — but how do you use this technique to increase your ability to live without drugs and alcohol? Here are four things you can do to practice mindfulness in recovery.
- Mindful Breathing
This is the intro to meditation — and you can do it even if you’ve had a hard time meditating before, since it will only take a single minute of your time. All you have to do is close your eyes and begin breathing slowly in through the nose and out through the mouth. Each breath cycle should last for about six seconds. Focus on the breath filling you up and exiting again, while letting go of all the troublesome thoughts that can plague your everyday life.
This will help you ground yourself in the present, rather than looking back on negative events of the past or projecting into the future. The best thing about it is you can do it nearly anywhere or any time, so it’s a great tool to use when you’re finding yourself struggling to have a good time without drugs or alcohol.
- Mindful Observation
This is a great one for people who enjoy the outdoors, as it simply consists of choosing a natural object in your immediate environment and giving yourself over to close observation of it. The idea is to notice as many small details as possible while narrowing your focus down to your object of choice.
It serves the same purpose as the breathing exercise, in terms of helping you be truly present in the moment. This can also be done with any kind of object in a pinch — for example, if you were having trouble with cravings at a party, you might pick some element of decoration to do this with, such as a painting or sculpture. When you’ve finished, you’ll find that your grip on the situation has increased even from just a minute or two of mindful observation.
- Mindful Awareness
Another way to increase your ability to have fun without drugs or alcohol is to start with the small stuff. Awareness exercises are meant to increase your appreciation for everyday tasks and the results they produce. It’s all too easy to live life on autopilot, especially after all the artificial excitement brought on by substance abuse. Mindful awareness can be practiced in many ways, but the idea is to stop and really appreciate the results of your actions.
This can take the shape of stopping to contemplate something as simple as the opening of a door. Where are you in this moment? How are you feeling? Where are you going?
If you’re eating a good meal, take time to appreciate it to the fullest. If you find yourself in the middle of a negative thought, pause to determine whether that thought is constructive — and if not, take a moment to let that negativity go. There are many ways to cultivate awareness, and they all start by appreciating your own existence in every possible moment.
- Mindful Immersion
The ultimate goal of any mindfulness practice is to increase awareness to the maximum. This is also vital in any situation where you’re trying to have fun but not quite succeeding without thoughts of drugs or alcohol. Immersion is meant to give you a whole new perspective on tasks you find laborious or dull, and you can do this by giving every action and interaction the respect it deserves.
If you’re exercising, focus on how each muscle feels as it performs its task and how your body moves in incredible sync. If you’re writing, drawing or painting, notice how all the intricate muscles of your hand and arm move to create visible results. If you’re with family or friends, pay attention to the feeling of laughter or the warmth of a hug. This can be applied to any situation where you feel like you’re unable to have fun without drugs or alcohol, and it can truly change the way you view yourself and your actions.
Options for Sober Fun
Now that you’ve got the tools to increase your awareness — and therefore your capacity to have sober fun — let’s take a look at the many ways you can begin to do so. No matter your set of interests, the options for having a good time abound in sobriety.
- Sports: In terms of filling your life with healthy alternatives to drugs and alcohol, physical exercise is one of the best things you can do for yourself. Exercise of any kind, from a leisurely walk to a triathlon, has the ability to boost energy levels as well as alleviate mental health symptoms. In fact, people who get regular and vigorous exercise have a 25 percent lower risk of developing depression or anxiety disorders!
That’s great for people in recovery, because addiction is often caused and inflamed by stress, anxiety and depression. Sports also offer the opportunity to grow your network of sobriety-supporting friends. Since exercise and substance abuse are pretty much at odds, sports or exercise-based social groups can be the perfect place to find others who have fun without drinking or drugs.
There are also plenty of options for those who prefer more solitary pursuits. Yoga, for example, can be done alone — and is a fantastic tie-in to mindfulness practices. From running to dancing, rock climbing to kayaking, a preference for alone time won’t get in the way of having a great time with sports and exercise.
- Art and Literature: Some of us aren’t particularly physically-inclined — and even if you are, you’ve got to stop and sit down some time. For a more sedentary good time without drugs or alcohol, you’d do well to check out your local book club or sign up for a painting class. Creative writing and art have been proven in multiple studies to improve health across the board, including stress and anxiety symptoms.
Creative writing can be an excellent way to practice mindfulness, and all types of art can help you express emotions you may not be able to voice. Taking up an artistic pursuit after rehab is a great way to have sober fun while learning as well as expressing yourself.
- Volunteering: While this may come as a shock to some, volunteering is one of the top ways of having fun without alcohol or drugs. When volunteering your time, you’re boosting your health, learning new skills, and socializing with other like-minded individuals — the trifecta for people in recovery from addiction. Not only that, but 94 percent of people who volunteer report that it improves their mood.
The options for volunteering are as diverse as people’s interests, so do a bit of research into locally available programs. For those who love our four-legged friends, there are always openings for volunteers in animal shelters. If you’re interested in health and science, you may gravitate toward volunteering at hospitals or clinics. If you’ve got the chops for it, you can even become a volunteer firefighter. The key to having fun while volunteering is to choose something you’re passionate about.
These are only some of the options out there for people who are learning how to live without drugs or alcohol. Anything that connects you to other sober individuals, encourages you to exercise, or simply makes you happy is something to pursue as a sober alternative approach to leisure time.
Choosing Sobriety Over Substances
You now have a comprehensive understanding of why addiction makes it seem challenging to have sober fun, as well as several mindfulness techniques and activity options. But that knowledge can’t do you any good if you never get the addiction help you need. If you’re still hesitant to pick up the phone and call a reputable rehab, you’re not alone. Of the 23.5 million Americans who need treatment for drug and alcohol addict99n, only 11 percent ever get that treatment.
There are a lot of reasons someone might be apprehensive about enrolling in a rehab program, but the worry that you can’t have fun without alcohol or drugs shouldn’t be one of them. Recovery is a process of re-learning how to be you and how to get your brain accustomed to life without substances. Just as you can learn to say no to substances in tough situations, you can learn mindfulness and other techniques that can change the way you view socialization and other fun activities.
Once you fully accept you simply don’t need drugs and alcohol to enjoy yourself, you’ll be able to look at recreational situations without the tint of addiction. It’s certainly easier said than done, but with effective rehab treatment and therapy, it’s absolutely an attainable goal.
12 Keys Rehab in Florida focuses on not only helping you recover from drug or alcohol addiction, but also learning how to have fun without using substances. We are here to help you get your life back on track. Contact 12 Keys today and let us help you learn how to have fun again.