The term “self-care” came into style in recent years because, frankly, we all need to relax a bit. We’re inundated with bad news, an onslaught of digital distractions, and a culture that expects us to be driven to work at all times and to always be accessible. Everyone’s looking to achieve balance and find ways to relieve stress. But for the recovering addict, self-care shouldn’t just be a luxurious dream. It is essential in the process of moving past the addiction for good. It can even be lifesaving.
Why is self-care important?
Addicts, at their core, generally don’t believe that they are worth caring for. These feelings are usually what drove them into unsafe behaviors in the first place. In fact, poor self-care is a common denominator of emotional relapse. Part of the recovery process is changing your thinking and the old habits that made using a convenient and viable solution to life’s problems. When you aren’t comfortable in your own skin, that substance becomes a form of escapism.
By treating yourself well and learning to be comfortable and happy in your own skin, you set yourself up on a path that makes using not only unappealing, but also more difficult. When you learn how to start taking care of yourself in the ways you need — emotionally, physically, mentally, socially and financially — you will gradually see that using no longer has a place in your life.
Self-care Isn’t Selfish
Let’s face it: We live in a society that prizes ambition, drive and energy. We’ve come to think of vacations, a good night’s sleep, a massage or even a day off as luxuries we can’t afford (and perhaps even as signs of laziness). “It’s selfish to do things for myself,” we argue, because our culture prizes selfless action and tends to condemn those that claim time and space for themselves.
Society tells addicts that their addictions are self-centered. Their need for those substances has taken precedence over everything else — their responsibilities, their finances, their relationships with others and definitely their own basic health needs. So once they’re sober, it may feel wrong to “indulge” in self-care. Instead, they may feel they should put others’ needs before their own. However, this can be a path to relapse. Addicted individuals tend to take less than they need, eventually becoming exhausted and resentful, which can lead to turning to substances for escape. When you get what you need, there’s simply less need for those substances.
Moreover, if the addict is your child or spouse, self-care is a critical component of being a caretaker. Parents put their children’s needs before their own, but addiction isn’t something a parent can fix by themselves, so that’s a losing battle. When your energy is depleted and you’re miserable, when the recovery from the addiction becomes your addiction, you won’t have the strength or tolerance for the demanding times to come, nor the healthy outlook you need to model for others. Addiction is a family disease, so your self-care is just as critical as that of the recovering addict.
There is a big difference between self-care and selfishness. When you’re being selfish, you want and seek more than what you need to be healthy. Self-care isn’t pampering yourself. Treating yourself to indulgent luxuries you don’t need will merely act as band-aids — downing a half-gallon of ice cream or buying outrageously expensive items, for example — only to replace one addiction with another.
Though this kind of self-indulgence can be costly, it’s easily done. The truth is that true self-care is hard work. It involves lifestyle changes, the establishment of boundaries, and the perseverance to manage stress by not succumbing to the demands of others. It’s about learning to calm and soothe yourself from within rather than turning to an outside source — drugs, food, material objects or other people — for comfort.
Though it doesn’t come easily or naturally — especially for addicts in recovery — the rewards to your mental, physical and emotional health cannot be overstated.
Studies show that mind-body relaxation reduces drug and alcohol use, and is more effective in preventing relapses long-term. Research proves that self-care improves our physical health, relationships and even incomes. About 50 percent of the determinants of our physical health come through lifestyle and personal behaviors. The American Psychological Association says that a regimen of regular self-care promotes health and well-being, decreases stress and depression rates, helps to prevent or manage diseases or injuries, improves immune function, lowers anxiety and depression levels, increases the capacity for empathy, and enhances your quality of life. However, the APA also suggests that one of the primary barriers to self-care is simply not knowing how to do it.
21 SELF-CARE ACTIVITIES FOR RECOVERY
Making lifestyle changes is hard. That’s why we’ve put together this list of 21 tips for improving self-care for addicts — and just about anyone struggling to overcome life’s biggest challenges and live a healthier life.
Addiction takes a serious toll on the body, interfering with the absorption of essential nutrients, affecting the chemistry of the brain and changing the metabolism. Substance abuse generally has replaced exercise and food, and its effects increase your risk for diabetes, hypertension, hyperglycemia and more. So any self-care routine must first address the toll the addiction has taken on your body, nourishing your cells and lowering your risk for disease.
- Heal and Detoxify With Food — Your diet affects your brain chemistry, helping you stabilize your mood and respond effectively to stress. Because substance abuse may lead to serious deficiencies in vitamins and minerals, you must replenish them. Practice eating every few hours, and strive for a nutrient-dense diet (fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish, especially). Antioxidants help to decrease inflammation and detoxify your body, so bulk up on antioxidant-rich foods, such as blueberries, black grapes, raspberries, strawberries, pecans, cranberries and dark chocolate.
In fact, one antioxidant in particular, N-acetylecysteine (NAC), has been shown to be the most important nutrient for reducing or eliminating addictive behaviors. Evidence suggests that it diminishes cocaine and alcohol cravings, helps to resolve obsessive-compulsive disorders, and regulates neurotransmitters. Also, add more omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B-complex and vitamin C to your diet to aid healing. You’ll likely soon notice a change for the better in your intestinal tract, the appearance of your skin, and your overall mood, and a more balanced diet is also shown to reduce anxiety and cravings.
- Get Your Exercise — Science shows that exercise boosts the same brain chemicals that are sparked by drug use — dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin. It not only acts as a distraction from addiction, but it can be a great way to begin replacing it. Animal studies prove that exercise helps the nervous system to heal itself, creating new pathways that aid in memory. Turns out that the “runner’s high” we’ve often heard about is a real thing, not unlike an opioid, and it can be a powerful method for overcoming addiction and improving your state of mind. In addition, if gyms and running aren’t your thing, no worries. Even regular walks have tremendous benefits, including helping you stave off disease, maintain a healthy weight, strengthen bones and muscles long depleted from abuse, improve your mood, and boost your balance and coordination.
- Sleep Well — Sleep may be the least understood of human bodily functions, but we know it isn’t a luxury you can do without: Sleep is critical to maintaining mental and physical functioning and clearing toxins from our brains. It prevents disease and contributes to our mental and emotional well-being. Make it a priority to sleep well. Maintain a regular sleep schedule by going to bed and rising at roughly the same times each day. Avoid caffeine and alcohol, both of which may deprive you of good sleep. Develop a comforting bedtime ritual that you enjoy and which prepares you for sleep — for instance, taking a warm bath, dimming your lights, avoiding TV and other electronic screens (the lights from these devices have been shown to interrupt sleep cycles) or listening to soothing music.
- Get Up and Dance! There’s a reason children (or adults in celebratory moods) burst into dance: It actually tells our brains that we’re feeling good. Dancing has been scientifically shown to improve heart health more than your standard cardio session, and it sends a surge of mood-boosting chemicals through your body that heightens your mental state. Our bodies are instinctively programmed to sync our bodies’ movements to music, so dancing is a primal urge. Moreover, research shows that dancing improves your memory, coordination, focus and intelligence, so that frequent dancing can sharpen your mind and make you less likely to fall prey to brain diseases. It lowers dementia risk by a full 76 percent. So put on those boogie shoes and get moving!
- Seek Medical care — Many addicts have put off medical care because they fear what they’ll hear, they can’t afford it, or they have missed important signs and symptoms of serious illnesses because they were numbed by addiction. However, seeing a doctor for a physical or seeking help for medical issues is a critical component of self-care. Make it a priority to visit a doctor and set aside money in your monthly budget for your prescriptions.
- Try Aromatherapy — The science of aromatherapy is still new, but what we do know is pointing toward the practice alleviating anxiety and depression, reducing pain sensations, improving mood and even boosting memory. Plus, it just feels nice to relax with a refreshing or soothing scent. Try citrus (orange in particular) for calming your nerves, rosemary for improving memory or lavender for improving sleep and easing pain.
The loneliness and feelings of hopelessness that are often associated with recovery can be so overwhelming that it becomes tempting to revert to substance abuse. Many recovering addicts have had to leave behind the friends and acquaintances that enabled the addiction, or they have burned bridges with the family and friends who did not. Social isolation can easily lead to relapse, which is why practicing social self-care activities is a crucial habit to maintain.
- Get Yourself a Pet — No doubt the companionship a pet can provide — a nonjudgmental, unconditionally loving companion at that — is invaluable. Nevertheless, a pet can be your health’s best friend, too. Playing with a dog or cat elevates dopamine and serotonin levels, calming and relaxing your mind and reducing the effects of stress. People with pets have less heart disease, less depression and lower cholesterol levels. Playing with a pet fulfills a basic human need for touch. It can have powerful effects on mood and emotions, and it’s been shown to have positive effects on even the most hardened criminals. Plus, it builds exercise into your daily routine and structure and routine into your day.
- Seek out Healthy Friendships — Find ways to avoid isolation, without adding stress to your life. This means seeking out hobbies, sports or activities that you enjoy and which allow you to meet people under healthier circumstances. Treat social appointments as if they were work appointments. After all, they can be just as critical to your well-being. If you have positive relationships with friends or family members, set up standing dates for coffee, dinner or walks. Find yourself a running or bicycling group, or join your workplace softball team. Connect to a book or scrapbooking club. Take your dog to the dog park and introduce yourself to friendly dog owners. Take a class. And by all means, attend your recovery group, where you’ll meet folks like yourself who are struggling to overcome addiction and who will remind you that you aren’t alone.
- Let Some Connections Go — Breaking your cycle of addiction means carving out a life for yourself that is free of destructive behaviors and people. Honor yourself by cutting those damaging ties that no longer serve you. Spend time only with people who build you up and make you feel healthy, happy and strong, and let the others go. Turn off your cell phone or screen your calls if you must; avoid social media and practice saying “no.”
- Volunteer — Helping others can benefit you as much as it does others. Generosity and empathy stimulate oxytocin production, which increases your state of calm and reduces stress. Studies show that volunteers are, on average, happier people. Volunteering helps you to feel more connected to your community, makes a difference in others’ lives (and perhaps your own), expands your network of friends and professional connections, gives you a sense of purpose and helps you to stay physically healthy. Additionally, it lowers your risk for depression, boosts your self-confidence and helps you to turn a difficult time in your life into a productive time. It also teaches valuable job skills and is extremely satisfying and rewarding. Consider what causes or issues are important to you, how much time you can and are willing to commit, what skills you can bring to the job and what organizations near you could use your help, and reach out about volunteer opportunities.
Because addiction affects the brain, healing the brain and stimulating it in healthy ways is a critical factor in recovery. Here are some strategies for healing and calming the brain and improving your mental outlook.
- Get Outside — You probably don’t need research to tell you it feels good to step outside and get some fresh air when you’re feeling stressed. Nevertheless, in case you do, here it is: Your brain waves are actually different when you spend time in a built environment versus when you’re outdoors. For your brain, a walk outdoors has effects similar to meditation. It reduces stress, improves your mood and even boosts your self-esteem. Statistically, people who spend more time outdoors are more physically fit as well. So be sure to find time each day to enjoy the great outdoors.
- Take Vacations — We don’t take nearly enough vacations — most of us leave vacation days on the table at the end of each year, and for those of us who dare escape, the majority end up doing work while we’re gone anyway. But skipping vacations can be disastrous for our mental and physical health. Downtime lowers depression levels, lessens your stress, boosts your creativity and actually improves your productivity upon return. Moreover, it doesn’t have to be an expensive vacation to an exotic locale to have the same benefit. Staycations and day or weekend trips can be just as effective for lifting your spirit and improving brain function.
- Get a Massage — The jury’s still out on the physical benefits of massage, but there’s no disputing the fact that massage significantly reduces stress and anxiety. Any touch-focused care — from a partner’s five-minute foot rub to a one-hour Swedish massage — lowers your perceived level of stress, improves your mood and helps you have a better night’s sleep.
- Escape from Devices — Computers, cell phones, tablets, video games… they all rob the brain of much-needed downtime — time the brain needs to rejuvenate itself, process memories and be more productive. In the brain of a recovering addict, this downtime is even more essential to healing. Set boundaries for yourself that build in downtime, which is more than just a luxury — it’s a necessity. A good self-care practice is to turn off your phone in the evening and leave it off until morning, or use its “do not disturb” setting so that you won’t feel the need to jump every time it chimes. Be sure to let people know when you aren’t available, and schedule it on your calendar. Your mental health is more valuable than any other appointment in your life.
- Avoid Stress — We’ve all payed lip service to the idea that stress is bad for us, but did you know it actually can poison your body and be lethal to your health? In his documentary film, “Stress, Portrait of a Killer,” Stanford University researcher Dr. Robert Sapolsky likens our day-to-day relationships with stress to animals in the desert running for their lives from predators.
The brain’s stress response sends adrenaline into our bloodstream and muscles. When a zebra runs from a lion, its adrenaline levels spike, firing into muscles to give it the strength to survive. Once the threat passes, the adrenaline levels lower and his body normalizes. The human stress response is the same, but for us, our stresses aren’t lions: They’re work, money and the demands of recovery. Moreover, our brains have no off button, so these chemicals continue firing into our bodies, poisoning our bloodstreams with adrenaline. In large doses, it can hurt our hearts, contribute to obesity and affect our mental health. In other words, stress is the enemy of self-care. Seek relaxation techniques, from drinking hot tea to meditation, that help lower your stress levels and provide your brain with an “off button.”
- Practice Mindfulness — To practice mindfulness means to be actively attentive to the present moment. It means to live in the moment and avoid worry or anxiety about what’s been or what’s to come. Sustained attention to the present can reduce stress and depression, reduce chronic pain, lower blood pressure, improve sleep, alleviate gastrointestinal problems and promote a sense of wellbeing. In addition, mindfulness is an effective element of treating substance abuse disorders. Practice meditation by sitting quietly and focusing on your breathing, allowing thoughts to come and go without judgment. Notice bodily sensations, sounds or feelings.
- Try Yoga — The ancient practice of yoga is enjoying popularity today because of its restorative benefits. The few studies conducted show that yoga’s unique combination of physical and mental practice helps to soothe and calm the mind, lowering anxiety and depression levels, and decreasing your body’s stress response. This, in turn, helps to lower your blood pressure and heart rate.
Emotional self-care can mean different things to everyone, but the idea is that you should nurture your emotions as well as you nurture your body, because emotional pain can be a precursor to relapse. Surround yourself with positive people and situations and do what you need to do in order to feel happy, confident and content.
- Seek Counseling — Hopefully the fact that you’re in recovery means that you have been working with a mental health professional of some sort. If you aren’t, you should consider it. This might mean a psychologist, a therapist or even a social worker. Group therapy is also infinitely valuable. All of these options enable you to express your emotions rather than let them bottle up and fester. You’ll find that sharing your thoughts and feelings with a nonjudgmental third party is enormously freeing, and you’ll feel lighter afterward. Plus, you’ll leave with tools for overcoming depression and making connections to others. Contact 12 Keys Rehab for a consultation to discuss your therapeutic options.
- Treat Yourself — It’s easy for retail therapy to turn into an unhealthy drain on your finances, but there’s a difference between shopping addiction and letting yourself indulge in a frozen yogurt or a new pair of jeans. Studies show that a little shopping goes a long way toward to boosting your mood and self-esteem, helping you to feel more confident and in control.
- Keep a Journal — Make it a self-care goal to record your thoughts and feelings in a journal or diary, to help manage your emotions and process the struggle of recovery. Journaling even a couple times a week can have significant benefits for those working to overcome addiction. The process helps alleviate pain and suffering, and increases your sense of emotional, mental and spiritual well-being. It nurtures creativity and helps you identify patterns that may be helpful or harmful. Practice recording the things you are grateful for, helping you to see the positives in your life rather than dwelling on the negatives.
- Listen to Music — Crank up the tunes and do a little dancing — it’s good for you! Music boosts mood, creates a sense of optimism and enhances feelings of joy, while decreasing negative feelings.
Remember that self-care isn’t selfish or greedy. It’s as important to your health as going to the doctor or exercising. Here at 12 Keys Rehab, we know that self-care is an essential prescription for reminding yourself that you matter, that you are worthy and deserving of love and concern. Knowing this can give you needed confidence to tackle recovery and make long-lasting lifestyle changes. Contact us to learn more about how we can help you on your journey.