I’ve been reading the Debunking Addiction blog lately, and it’s gotten me thinking a lot about early sobriety (see Advice for Regaining Control of Your Life in Early Sobriety). Early sobriety generally refers to the first year of not drinking after sobering up. My experience has been that early sobriety will trigger anxiety, especially if you already have an anxiety disorder, which I believe many problem drinkers do.
Why Early Sobriety Triggers Anxiety
Even though I’ve been sober for a while now, I clearly remember the pain of early sobriety. That first year of not drinking was pretty much hell. I was struggling to not drink, going to as many Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings as I could (which is a whole other post about social anxiety disorder), and trying to keep my generalized anxiety disorder symptoms from completely taking over my life.
Addiction, whatever form it takes, is about getting relief from painful emotions. In my case, drinking and doing drugs was the only way I knew how to cope with my pain of depression and anxiety attack symptoms. And it worked great, for a long, long time — decades, actually.
And then it stopped working, which is the eventual outcome of all addictive behavior. Instead of making me feel better, drinking started making my mental health issues worse. It had inexplicably turned on me. I had to stop.
Which brings me to the reason why early sobriety triggers anxiety. Over the years, drinking had become my main coping skill for dealing with my painful emotions, especially anxiety. Alcohol is a great anxiety reliever. But, when I had to stop drinking, I found out the hard way that I’d coped with anxiety merely by suppressing it with alcohol. And now the alcohol (and the suppressive relief it brought) was gone. My anxiety flared like a raging brush fire. It was time to find new methods for living with anxiety.
What to Do When Early Sobriety Triggers Your Anxiety
Getting sober is essentially about replacing destructive coping strategies with constructive ones. This is especially true in early sobriety, because painful feelings like anxiety will get triggered due to lack of alcohol, plus the overall strangeness of navigating the world sober. It just feels really weird for a while. Here’s some things you can do in early sobriety to reduce your anxiety triggers:
- Go to lots of 12 Step meetings. — If you’re getting sober via a 12 Step program like AA, it’s a good idea to go to a lot of meetings in early sobriety. Lots of people in the program told me early on that I should try to go to a meeting a day for awhile.
- Find meetings that work for you. — Every meeting has a different flavor and tone, so find ones you feel comfortable enough in to share honestly about how you’re feeling. The whole point of meetings is to talk honestly about your experience. It’s a little like group therapy, but without the high counseling fees (see What is Group Therapy? How It Works, Why It’s Useful).
- Get a 12 Step sponsor. — A sponsor is a fellow addict/alcoholic who acts as a confidant and a guide through the 12 Steps. A good sponsor is someone you can trust and are willing to risk revealing yourself to. Look for someone of the same sex who you relate to, or who’s sobriety intrigues you in some way. A lot of good sponsors have also struggled with mental health issues, and have overcome them to some degree through their perseverance in sobriety.
- Work the 12 Steps. — The Steps, plus a belief in a higher power concept of your understanding, are two of the main tools in 12 Step recovery. They help you get at and work through painful feelings like anxiety during early sobriety. The Steps are spiritual tools that can help you better relate to (and regulate) your emotions without the use of drugs or alcohol.
Many alcoholics and addicts have anxiety issues. That anxiety will get triggered in early sobriety. Even people without serious anxiety issues often feel a lot of anxiety during their first year. In my opinion, it’s pretty much inevitable that early sobriety will trigger anxiety.
The tools of recovery, like meetings, the Steps, and a sponsor, are substitute coping skills for drinking. They don’t work as fast, and they’re not as easy to acquire, but, over time, they’re much more constructive and work better than drinking ever could.