Stress is a part of life, unfortunately. We don’t have the power to control the world around us, only our reaction to it.
Because stress is one of the significant factors in why people turn to substance use, as well as one of the biggest triggers to those who are in recovery, we need to develop skills to be able to manage the stressors in our life. But what exactly is stress management?
The first level of stress management is to stop long enough to realize that we are experiencing stress. It is not as though our phone is going to send us an alert.
Whether the stress comes from emotions, substance cravings, or factors outside of us, our bodies naturally react to these stressors without spelling it out for us: we are under stress right now.
We can learn to pay attention to our emotions. If we are angering quickly, ready to cry, or any other type of feeling is bubbling up to the surface, then something is going on.
We need to address it head-on if we are to avoid consequences. This is even more important when a big craving hits, or there are outside stressors such as work, relationships, finances, or more.
Successful stress management begins with identifying the stress or craving as soon as possible.
Managing our Reactions
Stress happens. Whether or not we react, how we react, and certainly whether or not we relapse is entirely up to us.
Mindfulness meditation and yoga can help us learn how our minds can stay present during stressful situations, instead of reacting. The more we practice mindfulness, the better our brains get at redirecting ourselves to the present and accepting whatever is in front of us, without judgment.
This can be half the battle. Continued practice of mindfulness is like a workout for our minds, and as we meditate, our brains get more reliable and more resilient.
Some of the tools taught in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) include tools for stress management. These include:
• Distracting – when stressors are helping our emotions spillover, or we are experiencing a craving, we can distract our minds and bodies in different ways. We can keep ourselves busy physically, like exercising or taking a walk. We can do something that needs to get done, or we can physically remove ourselves from the situation. The physical effort to distract can sometimes be enough until the stress or craving is over.
Other ways to distract ourselves include using opposite emotions to divert, such as using humor or comedy, listening to music that is the opposite of our mood, etc. We can distract our thoughts by things as simple as counting or repeating the alphabet, or more complex thought processes such as solving problems like crosswords or Sodoku. Our minds can also be distracted by physical sensations, such as snapping rubber bands, holding onto some ice, or other intense physical feelings that are quick and easy to access.
• Changing Body Chemistry – particularly when we are experiencing a craving, changing the chemistry of our body can be very useful to help us ride out the craving. We can engage in intense exercise, which gets our heart rate up and changes our body chemistry quickly. We can also change our body temperature the opposite way, by applying ice packs, for example. Another way is to practice progressive relaxation by tensing and relaxing muscles. All of these activities proactively change what is going on in our bodies, which impacts what is going in our brains.
• Self-Soothing – When stressors hit, we can use our five senses to self-soothe. We can look at art or nature or other calming images, and we can listen to music that is soothing to us. The music we choose does not have to be soft or soothing by other people’s definitions, just music that we like, that soothes our soul. We can light scented candles or bake something that smells good, or we can taste different flavors or foods that are soothing to us. We can use touch by bathing or massaging ourselves with lotion. We can pet animals, or use other activities involving contact that we enjoy. The idea is to use activities and experiences that soothe us through our senses.
• Improving the Moment – we can use the above ideas or more to enhance the Moment that we are in. The opinions here are to make an impact mentally, such as using meditation, prayer, or other spirituality, using affirmations, changing our location for the better, intentional relaxation, changing our focus, or applying meaning to our activities. When we are proactive in our minds, we can change the way stress impacts us by improving what is happening instead of reacting to what is happening.
What is stress management? This is the opportunity for us to respond to our stressors and cravings in positive ways, rather than to react to them. As we identify our stressors, we can use skills such as distraction, changing our body chemistry, self-soothing, or improving the Moment. This is us intentionally taking charge of our minds and bodies to change the response in our minds and bodies and prevent future reactions such as relapse of substance use. Stress management is putting ourselves in the driver’s seat of our lives.
Learn how to manage stress at AToN Center. Call (888) 535-1516 today. We can help you exercise your mind and learn to successfully tolerate stress.